Regulars at Kingston Park Stadium will see a familiar face in charge of England Under-20s tonight, with Steve Bates relishing his return to Newcastle.
England U20s head coach Steve Bates is no stranger to these parts, having enjoyed two stints at Newcastle Falcons.
The former England scrum half helped steer the Falcons to promotion into the top flight back in 1997, and was an instrumental part of the management team as they became the only team ever to win the Premiership title at the first attempt the following year.
Returning to the club as head coach and then director of rugby following a successful stint north of the border, it is with great joy that Bates returns to familiar surroundings, excited by the squad at his disposal this evening.
“The fact the game is in Newcastle is an added bonus for me,” says the former school teacher, who has previously coached Scotland A and England Saxons.
“I know the place well from my time there, the passion for sport in the city is tremendous and I’ve got a huge amount of affection for the Falcons as a club."Kingston Park as a venue has everything you could want – the pitch is fantastic."
“Kingston Park as a venue has everything you could want – the pitch is fantastic, the stands are great and it will be a really good place for us to take on what we know will be a very good Welsh side.
“I’m looking forward to the Six Nations competition as a whole, it’s an exciting time and playing in Newcastle will be great. We’ll be back there using it as a base camp when we play Scotland away in a couple of weeks’ time, and I’m sure we’ll enjoy it.”
Development of players and coaches
Boasting a squad laden with quality, Bates is fully aware of the long and short term goals for an England Under 20s side who are used to success, as current Grand Slam holders and World Rugby U20 Championship finalists.
“There are two strands to it,” he says.
“One is trying to develop players as part of the England pathway system, which means under-18s, 20s, Saxons and then England.
“There’s a big focus on player development, and that’s what the Under-20s Six Nations is all about, bringing a little more structured competition to it. The under-18s have some good games during the year but they have less of a defined tournament feel to their programme, whereas we have the Six Nations and the World Rugby U20 Championship as two real focal points to our season.
“As well as that we are exploring how we can develop English coaches along with the players, and last year was the first pilot of that. We had three guys who came in as part of the coach development programme agreement, they did a good job and enjoyed it, and then this year we’ve had the luxury of being a bit better organised.
"We’ve got another three good coaches including James Ponton from the Newcastle perspective, plus Richard Blaze and Anthony Allen, and I’m really impressed with all three.
“They’re getting very hands-on experience of coaching an elite group of players in a team environment, and it’s important to stress that their involvement with us extends beyond the two competitions we’re involved in.
"There are other coach development opportunities for them within the 18-month period they have with us, and we’ve already done things like working with Peter Moores at Nottinghamshire Cricket and also the Great Britain Boxing coaches. That has been very useful, and it’s just about broadening your expertise.”
'Competitive pack and some crafty backs'
Asked what supporters can expect from this year’s crop of Under-20s stars, Bates says: “We’ve got a very good squad across the board, to be honest, rather than just being particularly strong in one department.
“We’ve got some big lads who are going to make us a very competitive pack, and some crafty backs too.
“We feel there are a few characteristics we are trying to develop around being pretty robust, uncompromising and a lot of it is about getting forward and putting pressure on people, physically and mentally.
"Within that there will be aspects of our play which will develop over the year, and given the time we have with the players we have to start at a point which is fairly basic.”
Pathway to success
Shining a light on the degree of synergy between the U20s and England’s full national side, he explains: “We’ve had good exposure to the senior national team.
“I spent a week with Eddie Jones prior to their game against Argentina during the autumn, we went in as a group to watch them train around Christmas time and we all went to watch their game against Australia to see how things work on a match day.
“Neal Hatley came into our training camp last month, Richard Blaze did a bit with Steve Borthwick on lineout stuff and them Jimmy Ponton is an old school mate of Paul Gustard, so they have been doing a bit together.
“There have been a lot of conversations and shared learnings between the two camps, but there’s not a set play book which gets filtered down, as such. We will definitely be influenced by the way they are doing things, and that’s only right when they’re at the top of the pathway.”
Hoping to continue a fine run which has seen England as one of the world’s leading nations at U20s level, Bates credits the RFU academies around the country for helping bring talent to the fore.
“I think a lot of the success England have had at age-group level is down to the outstanding work going on in the academy system with the clubs,” he says.
“Guys are being very well coached and looked after, we’ve got a lot of very good players as a result and I’ve been really impressed with the work the clubs and everyone else is doing. The guys have got ability, they’re fit and they know what they’re doing, which is a great starting point.”