World Cup winner Jason Leonard is backing Eddie Jones’ youthful England side to excel in their three-Test tour Down Under, but says they must target a crucial first Test win in Brisbane.
RFU President Leonard, who is England’s record cap holder and a 2003 World Cup winner, was speaking at the official World Rugby Under-20 Championship launch in Manchester and fittingly backed England’s youngsters to shine.
Jones has included Teimana Harrison, former rugby league star Ben Te’o, and front-row bolters Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge in his squad as he looks to guide the Red Rose to victory in a first ever three-Test series away to the Wallabies.
England have beaten Australia just three times Down Under, but Leonard – who was in the squad for two of those three wins – believes Jones’ men are primed to make history if they can claim an early advantage.
“If you start a three-Test tour, and you win that first Test all the pressure is on the opposition because if they don’t win the second Test, then that’s it. It’s game over, it’s finished,” the 119-times-capped international said.
“Both sides will be desperate to win their first game in Brisbane, so it is very exciting times for all of us watching.
“We have got good players and good coaches, going over there at the end of a long season – that might be one factor – but actually having seen Eddie and the way he prepares his players; they will work hard, but they will get rest as well.
“Hopefully by the time the first Test comes around, we will have a very fit and fresh England side raring to go.
“It is an opportunity to put down a marker. It is a challenge going to Australia playing them in their own backyard.”
Leonard, who won five caps for the British & Irish Lions, believes injuries and absences have – far from being a hindrance – actually revealed the depth in English rugby.
Joe Marler’s decision to remain at home following disciplinary issues turned heads in some circles, but Leonard thinks the resultant competition can only breed further success for Jones’ squad.
“Marler on the senior tour declined to go to Australia and now players are climbing all over that position,” he explained.
“Vunipola had a great game in his European Cup Finals and in the Premiership final. You look at Matt Mullan coming through the other day, we have got players coming through all over.
“It is a very exciting time for all the positions, I don’t think there is one position that we are particularly short in, I think we have got players across the board and now we have got all these Under-20s coming up and put their hand up for selection.
“Eddie has got the luxury that he can actually pick the players on form because they all seem to be playing pretty well at this moment in time.”
Jones sprung a surprise by selecting uncapped Leicester Tigers prop Ellis Genge among his 32-man touring party after just 125 minutes of Aviva Premiership Rugby for Leicester Tigers.
Genge started alongside Paul Hill in last year’s World Rugby Under-20 Championship final and after Hill won his first England cap during England’s Grand Slam campaign, Leonard is backing Genge to excel in Australia.
“He has got a pretty good chance of getting a first cap on tour, I mean like anything else, you can only try and impress the coaches as much as you can,” Leonard said. “His elevation has been quite rapid, it proves that he has got the talent. Eddie obviously sees something in him that he likes and he thinks he can nurture that and turn him into an even better player.”
Genge will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of his front-row buddy Hill, as well as internationals Anthony Watson, Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje, who turned Under-20s success into international honours.
Leonard picked out Bath-bound hooker Jack Walker as one to watch as the World Rugby U20 Championship kicks off in Manchester on June 7, with Sky Sports to broadcast over half of the matches live and games to played at the AJ Bell Stadium and Manchester City Academy Stadium.
See the Future Stars of Rugby at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Manchester this June. For more information, including how to buy tickets, visit http://www.englandrugby.com/u20championships/#WorldRugbyU20s