England’s radical plan to create a first-class production line of props, hookers and locks

Kepu Tuipulotu training
Harrow School skipper Kepu Tuipulotu was among the young prospects at the RFU's front-five get-together - Robbie Stephenson

On the night that England officially topped their group and secured a World Cup quarter-final, by virtue of Japan’s victory over Samoa in Toulouse, age-grade staff were preparing to pilot an initiative designed to solidify the senior side’s foundations for years to come.

Inspired by football’s focused camps for teenage goalkeepers and the dry-land training of junior platform divers, the Rugby Football Union staged its inaugural front-five get-together. Over the weekend at Bisham Abbey, a cohort of 26 promising props, hookers and locks from up and down the country aged between 16 and 19, the tallest of whom was 6ft 9in with the heaviest weighing 19st, immersed themselves in a packed programme.

Among the rotations were ‘flight school’, a specific line-out workshop guided by ex-Harlequins hooker Joe Gray, the self-explanatory ‘scrum club’, and a Sunday lunchtime look into how piano-pushers can contribute to open-field attacking scenarios. Experienced nutritionist Andy Kasper and psychologist James Mackenzie headed up sessions. Mako Vunipola visited on Saturday, with Nigel Redman and Conor O’Shea, two influential RFU figures, also popping in.

This “specialist support”, Jonathan Pendlebury explained, aimed to be as wide-ranging as the Football Association’s schemes for shot-stoppers.

“The FA have been doing this for eight or 10 years with their goalkeepers,” said the England Under-18 head coach, a former second-rower who joined the RFU in 2019 from the top job at Wasps academy.

“It’s been everything from the technical and tactical, as you’d expect, from catching to kicking and decision-making between the posts, to off-pitch learning, psychological support and thinking about the physical make-up of what a future England goalkeeper will look like. In rugby, we’ve definitely got specialist skills: goal-kicking, passing from scrum-half. But our goalkeepers are our props, our hookers and our front five.”

Steve Borthwick will no doubt have welcomed this step, though Pendlebury and Andy Titterrell, who also led the front-five camp from his post as England U20 coach, insist that it has not been brought about by failings at elite level.

England Under-18s head coach Jonathan Pendlebury
England Under-18s head coach Jonathan Pendlebury says the RFU project has been inspired by the FA's goalkeeper development scheme - Robbie Stephenson

“Coaching is evolving and there are all sorts of strategies,” Pendlebury added. “The RFU went from information dump to teaching through games: the game as the teacher. There is some sense in that, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, the game won’t teach you anything. When you’ve got these small-sided games going on, you can have some of the taller, longer, broader, deeper, big and beautiful players getting lost in it a bit when there’s more organisation needed for a scrum or a line-out.

“We now have props that can run nine metres per second. We have hookers who are fantastic decision-makers. We’ve got 6ft 9in locks who can jump high, run fast and defend and clear-out with low body heights. The game is changing that way. It’s not an area that has been forgotten about, just enhanced.”

The innate challenges of developing front-five forwards are plentiful, especially when, as Pendlebury points out, they could sit their A-Level exams in May and then be asked to step up into Premiership first-teams on July 1 of that same year. Age-grade scrum laws prioritise safety with limits on pushing and controls on driving angles. Below academy level, heftier locks might not have team-mates capable of lifting them. And it is highly unlikely that the strongest come up against their physical equals with much regularity. All of these issues encouraged Pendlebury to bring together individuals from between Under-17 and Under-19 bands.

Having joined the pathway system in 2020, Titterrell has discerned a trend across the best tight-five forwards. “I’ve found that they were either super fit and could play the game but technically struggled at scrum-time or they were the other way around,” he reflected. This crop has excited Titterrell. “Jeez, there are some specimens out there,” exclaimed the 42-year-old, who toured New Zealand with the 2005 British and Irish Lions and became a Premiership champion with Sale Sharks the following season.

Even with older players unable to attend due to National League and Premiership Cup fixtures, some intriguing names were invited to Bisham Abbey. Sonny Tonga’uiha, the son of cult hero Soane, is a burly tighthead prop making waves at Northampton Saints. Cameron Miell signed for Leicester Tigers in January, having starred around the pack as a schoolboy for Paul Roos Gymnasium in South Africa. Oscar Beckerleg of Exeter Chiefs started in the engine room during England U18’s Six Nations campaign last season. During that same tournament, Kepu Tuipulotu tumbled head over heels and then tore through Ireland for a 55-metre try.

Kepu Tuipulotu in training
Tuipulotu is put through his paces - Robbie Stephenson

Still 18, the Harrow School skipper has arrived at hooker after transitioning from centre to the back row and then forwards again to the front line. He is settling nicely, having won the Academy League with London Irish last season before being named man-of-the-match in England U18’s 41-0 win over France two months in South Africa. We can expect to hear much more about Tuipulotu; and not least because suitors will be circling. Currently, he remains attached to the ‘London and South Central Academy’, as the London Irish feeder system was renamed when the RFU took it over, and plans to take his time and assess options, with a university degree important to him.

An easy-going yet considered character, Tuipulotu is grateful for his close family network. Father Sione joined Newport in the early 2000s and older sister Sisilia has been a sensation for Wales. The Vunipolas and the Faletaus are close connections, too. Kepu himself earmarks three heroes: Malcolm Marx, Richie McCaw and his dad. ‘Flight school’, where he honed his throwing and built cohesion with lifting pods, was a big part of his front-five camp.

“I’ve reached a time where I have to specialise in a certain aspect,” Tuipulotu said. “To be the best, I have to knuckle down with my throwing, my scrummaging and my mauling; those specific skills. But you can’t neglect anything. Just because I’m working on my throwing, that doesn’t mean that I can neglect my catch-and-pass or my step before contact to gain metres.”

There is no escaping the fact that these youngsters will require physical size. During the current World Cup, England Rugby’s TikTok channel has charted the creation of a breakfast bap for Joe Marler, which featured chorizo, feta and egg and came in at 650 calories. Ollie Chessum’s protein shake, fortified by peanut butter and Greek yoghurt, comprised 773 calories. Importantly, Titterrell leaves scope for late developers by prioritising technique and a visit to watch Olympic divers train reinforced the “repetitiveness of excelling in basics”. He and Pendlebury linked that to set-piece routines because front-five forwards are aiming to nail around 13 line-outs and 10 scrums per game.

The men’s pathway in England has copped criticism over recent years, with less impressive results and the gradual rise of Ireland and France, underpinned by coordinated youth development, used to scald the RFU. Eddie Jones defended Borthwick, his successor, by decrying the dearth of emerging talent and implicitly blamed the governing body. A camp for front-five starlets does appear to be a well-conceived concept that could pay off handsomely, and Pendlebury finishes on a defiant note.

“It’s almost like ‘keep watching’,” he said. “Drill is a dirty word. Write that on Twitter, you will get battered because someone might not like a drill. However, if it is appropriate, a drill is still a good coaching practice, as is 15 on 15. Whatever is meaningful for an individual in any given moment in time is still good. We know where we’re going.”

“It’s no surprise that Ireland and France are doing as well as they have, although they haven’t won a World Cup yet.” Pendlebury added. “We don’t just want to win a second one. We want to win it a third, a fourth and a fifth time.”

Should England manage that feat in the future, their production line of props, hookers and locks will have been essential.

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