The Saxons is the designated side that ties England to the senior England set up, but it gets all to rare outings and there's a plethora of players qualified to play for other countries. Time for a tour?
By Alex Shaw
With all the recent attention around the Rugby World Cup, the Six Nations and England’s tour to Australia this summer, one element of English rugby has fallen by the wayside – the Saxons.
Given that Ireland are the only other northern hemisphere nation to regularly field an ‘A’ team, fixtures are understandably sporadic for the Saxons. They are usually called upon once a year to do battle with the Irish Wolfhounds or take on the Barbarians, but outside of those one-off fixtures, the representative side is extremely underused.
The fact it exists, however, does create somewhat of a problem for England.
As the official second team, it is the Saxons, not the England U20 team, which ties players to representing the England senior team further down the road. Other nations who do not have a representative ‘A’ side, such as Wales, are able to rest safely in the knowledge that any player they cap at U20 level is then at their disposal moving forward.
For England, who have excelled at U20 level in recent years thanks to the work of Stuart Lancaster as the RFU’s former Head of Elite Development and the impressive improvements made by Aviva Premiership academies, the lack of opportunities to tie down these players is a concern. Most are not yet ready for test rugby or find their path blocked by the current incumbents in the senior team, and covetous eyes are certainly being cast in their direction from other parts of the British Isles.
There is rumour of a summer tour to South Africa beckoning for the Saxons or an Under-23 side, where they will take on a newly-created feeder side for the Springboks. There is, however, no sign of imminent confirmation from the RFU or SARU, so only time will tell if this is happening or just smoke and mirrors. Regardless, the need for summer fixture or two for the Saxons is real.
Emerging Premiership stars such as George McGuigan and Johnny Williams are being eyed hungrily by Ireland and Wales respectively, as is Sam Underhill, whose impressive performances for the Ospreys have put Wales on alert as a potential player to cap should he complete the required residency period. Standout Sale full-back Mike Haley, who qualifies for Ireland through his mother, is another player who fits the bill.
Harlequins lock Kieran Treadwell, a World Rugby U20 Championship finalist with England last season, has already seemingly nailed the Irish colours to his mast, agreeing a move to Ulster next season. The strength of the competition at that position for England make it an understandable move, but it won’t be something Eddie Jones is keen to see, lest it become a growing trend amongst England’s brightest talents.
McGuigan, Williams, Underhill and Haley are all unlikely to be in a position to tour Australia this summer with the senior England squad, but offers of senior test rugby from Ireland or Wales could be tempting, making getting the Saxons back up and running a matter of urgency for the RFU.
There’s no guarantee that these players would want to commit to England via the Saxons over offers of test rugby from Ireland or Wales, but it is an opportunity England must try to take.
It’s a tactic England have used before, locking down Scott Wilson and Kieran Brookes in 2014, keeping both tightheads out of Scottish and Irish hands respectively. They have also used it to tie foreign-born players to the red rose, such as Dave Ewers and Semesa Rokoduguni.
Beyond ensuring that these young players, all of whom have been developed in the Premiership, remain in England’s selection crosshairs, a summer tour or schedule for the Saxons would also give Jones an opportunity to look at the next tier of players at his disposal, something which could prove beneficial given that he is still new to the country and to the Premiership.
Williams isn’t the only young centre to breakthrough this season, with Northampton’s Harry Mallinder also excelling, helping spark their domestic and European seasons after a very lacklustre start. Mallinder seems on paper to be Jones’ perfect inside centre, capable of breaking the gain line with ease and then having the awareness and skills to distribute effectively, picking apart scrambling cover defences.
Young forwards such as Jack Walker, Charlie Ewels, Lewis Ludlam and James Chisholm would also be strong candidates to be involved in any potential fixtures, with the former Japan supremo’s ability at talent identification rarely questioned.
Jones is still assessing the options at his disposal in the senior team and as long as England keep winning, consistency will be key in his selections, making the Saxons a potentially very valuable source of experimentation and player evaluation for the Australian.
With confirmation of the mooted South Africa tour, if it is to be, unlikely to come before the new Springbok coach is appointed, don’t expect an announcement anytime soon.
If the tour does not go ahead, the RFU could do a lot worse than arranging for the Saxons to play some Tier 2 opposition this summer or, failing that, inviting the Wolfhounds across the water.