- England U20 coaches announced for 2018/19 season - read
- Buy tickets for England U20s v Scotland - here
Friday’s final game of the U20 Six Nations Championship will be a particularly special moment for one member of the England coaching team with Mark Hopley guiding the side at the ground he calls home.
Hopley, who is Northampton Saints academy head coach, came through the Saints Academy himself before making more than 50 appearances in the first team, joining the coaching staff in 2010.
He joins England U20s as part of the latest coach development programme agreement signed between the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Premiership Rugby.
And on Friday, England U20s will take on Scotland at Northampton's Franklin's Gardens (7.45pm, live on Sky Sports).
The programme will run alongside Hopley’s current club duties and will include the 2019 Six Nations as well as the World Rugby U20 Championship tournament in Argentina.
The U20 coaching team will be supported by RFU pathway performance coaches Steve Bates and Jim Mallinder while the trio will receive an individually designed coach development programme, led by head of professional coach development Gordon Lord.
He joins fellow coaches Richard Whiffin (attack) and James Scaysbrook (defence) for the season and is directly involved in preparing for, delivering and reviewing the U20’s coaching and playing programme.
The coaches will also have access to mentors and be exposed to a range of non-rugby elite performance environments that will involve visits to and interactions with coaches, support staff and athletes from a range of sports.
Hopley, who will lead England’s forward this season, spoke about his own coaching philosophy, and what he hopes to get out of this year’s coach development programme.
Q: What does it mean to you to be part of the England Under-20s coaching set up?
"It’s a massive honour for me to get this opportunity, as a young player I ended up playing for England U21s so it’s great to complete that journey with a chance to coach this group of really talented young players."
Q: What have you been up to in the first few months in the role?
"What’s been really important was to get an understanding of all the players and what their strengths and weaknesses are, but also the things that they want to develop individually.
"We’ve also had the chance to develop ourselves as coaches, we had opportunities to connect with the senior squad and get in to Pennyhill Park several times to sit down with the senior coaches and get experience of that environment and dig into their knowledge which has been really valuable.
"While there, immediately you are struck by the intensity of the sessions. What we’ve talked about all along is that we want to be one step under the senior squad, so for us it’s been about replicating that intensity to suit this environment and suit these players and I think we’ve done that pretty well."
Q: What do you hope to achieve in the role?
"I want to develop personally, utilise the other coaches and pick their brains and understand their own philosophies around the game as well as benefit from the experience of Steve Bates and Jim Mallinder.
"I also want to develop the players, I see that being a massive part of the role. I know a couple of results haven’t gone our way but I think we’ve learned some good lessons and will be in a good place ahead of the World Rugby U20 Championship in June."
Q: How do you approach coaching/what is your coaching philosophy?
"My coaching philosophy when it comes to the forwards is that I want them to be adaptable, not just set-piece focused, I want them to be well-rounded rugby players so they can do the right things at the right time. So my philosophy is empowering players to do that and to make those decisions.
"You have to allow players to make mistakes and create a safe environment where they are empowered to do that as long as there are some good learning outcomes from it. If you don’t put them in opportunities for great learning outcomes then we won’t improve."
Q: How special is it for you to be coaching an England team in Northampton?
"Northampton is a very special place for me. I’ve been there for 14 years as a player, academy coach and senior coach so to go there with a national team which has a good contingent of Northampton players as well will be very special."
Q: What can fans expect from this England side on Friday?
"I want our forwards to play with variety, to have an ability to gain set-piece dominance but hopefully the fans will see them play and get into good attacking shape as well as being very confrontational in defence."