The fingerprints of National League Rugby are prominent across England’s U20s Six Nations squad and on loan Newcastle hooker Jacob Oliver is one of many who are seeing levels three and four as a crucial part of their pathway. (Photo Credit: John and Barbara Austin)
When the team news dropped for England Under-20s’ clash with Wales Under-20s, there was a name which jumped out of the page.
Last summer, former London Irish full-back George Makepeace-Cubitt returned to his boyhood club following the sad demise of the Exiles. He rejoined National One side Rams RFC and has featured in seven games for them this season, scoring a brace of tries in his last appearance against Taunton Titans on January 27th.
But despite not being attached to a Premiership club or a top-flight academy, the 19-year-old has been selected to represent his country on Friday evening at The Rec.
The inclusion of a player from the third tier is quite the story given Makepeace-Cubitt is solely connected to Rams but as ever, there is still a glut of players within the England Under-20s set-up who are benefitting from being involved with National League clubs this term.
Excluding Makepeace-Cubitt, 13 of the 23-man squad selected for Friday’s meeting with Wales have gained important game time in levels three and four including 18-year-old Jacob Oliver.
ELECTRIC GEORGE EARNS @EnglandRugby UNDER 20s SPOT
Full back set to take on Wales under Friday Night Lights! pic.twitter.com/QOGdRqImAB
— Rams RFC (@Rams_RFC) February 7, 2024
There is no predicting how valuable a loan spell will be for a young player but for Oliver – whose parent club is Newcastle Falcons – the minutes he has accumulated in National Two North with Tynedale are not lost on him.
“Especially playing in the front row, I need minutes,” Oliver tells National League Rugby. “You need to play. You can train as much as you want but you can’t get match fit unless you’re playing. Not only that, but it is really good to be involved with a team outside the club that you’re with. As a young player, it is really refreshing to be able to go out and express yourself and play the game you enjoy and in a great environment too.”
Having been part of the club’s junior academy, Oliver joined Falcons’ senior academy last summer but the next step was always something the Barnard Castle schoolboy was conscious of.
“Leaving school, that was a question that quite a few coaches had for me,” admits the young hooker. “A big part of my game is ball-carrying, and how I am around the park and it sort of left a question mark whether I could progress that into men’s rugby.
“I was able to do it at age grade and I couldn’t have asked for a better loan club at Tynedale. Great set of lads there, the coaching staff are really good with me and I think they have just allowed me to play. I have really enjoyed my time with them and I think it has put me in a good place.”
Oliver was thrown straight in at Tynedale, featuring in their first seven games of this season whilst also playing the full 80 minutes in his opening four matches for the club.
Not only this, but he has punctuated his first taste of men’s rugby with 10 tries in 10 games, including three hat-tricks against Preston Grasshoppers, Lymm and Huddersfield.
View this post on Instagram
Granted, one or two of Oliver’s efforts have come off the back of solid driving mauls but a powerful carry for his third vs Preston, some quick-thinking and some fleet-footedness for his first at Lymm and a lovely line-break for one of his three tries against Huddersfield are certainly hallmarks of a modern-day hooker.
“Everyone wants to score tries, don’t they?” Oliver says with a laugh. “I love getting my hands on the ball and I have been fortunate enough to play with some lads at Tynedale [who allow me to do that]. I get myself in the right positions and they give me the ball. I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”
Oliver’s strong ball-carrying and ability to ‘get around the park’ have been noticeable attributes when scanning through footage of Tynedale’s games this season and when watching the young hooker, it is hard not to draw a couple of parallels with England’s Theo Dan.
The Saracens hooker shone in the second half of last season with his own dynamic ball-carrying and relentless work rate catching the eye, but the fact Dan spent time around National League clubs when he was younger (Blackheath and Bishop’s Stortford) and transitioned from the backs into the forwards are experiences he and Oliver have in common.
“I played all over!” says Oliver. “When I first joined the junior academy at Newcastle, I was playing scrum-half for them, at centre for school and I played all over the shop! It was Dicko [former Northampton Saints and Newcastle scrum-half Lee Dickson who is now Master in Charge of Rugby at Barnard Castle School] when he came in and said hooker was the position where I’ll play. I played my two Upper Sixth years at school at hooker and then just cracked on!”
Adapting and making the most of his opportunities is clearly a focus of Oliver’s, but achieving this surrounded by familiar faces and a strong North-East connection has been a bonus.
Following England Under-20’s 36-11 victory over Italy Under-20s last Friday, Oliver was presented with his cap alongside fellow Newcastle Falcons Ben Redshaw, Ben Douglas and Oli Spencer while the two Ben’s have also turned out for Tynedale this term.
🏴 A proud moment as four Newcastle players receive their England Under-20s cap after this evening’s win over Italy in Treviso.
👏 (Left to right) Ben Redshaw, Ben Douglas, Jacob Oliver and Oli Spencer.
— Newcastle Falcons (@FalconsRugby) February 2, 2024
And having worked with Under-20s head coach Mark Mapletoft during his time in England’s Under-18s set-up, it has made the new challenges which Oliver has embraced over the last few months that bit more comfortable.
“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be involved with the 20s set-up this year after just stepping out of the Under-18s,” says Oliver. “I was very much just looking forward to starting my first year at Newcastle. When I found out I was involved, I was over the moon.
“With my age, being in the front-row a year early, it just wasn’t something I was necessarily expecting but I have really enjoyed it so far.
“To be involved with a few of my clubmates as well and experience going away to Italy and the Six Nations with them [is great]. Imagining how it was going to go, I could never have pictured it to have gone as smoothly as it has.”
While those of a Newcastle or even a Tynedale persuasion might be excited by the path Oliver is on, there is no ‘hype’ from the player himself when we chat over Zoom.
Steve Borthwick has been clear about his desire to streamline the pathway between the Under-20s and the England senior squad with Harlequins’ Chandler Cunnigham-South – who played in the Under-20s side that reached the world championship semi-finals last summer – earning his first cap in Rome last weekend, but even though there is seemingly a tangible target for some of the country’s emerging talents, Oliver doesn’t want to look too far ahead.
“I think it [the focus on the pathway] is there but I think at the moment, I am just really enjoying the 20s,” Oliver admits. “It is my first year and I am not necessarily setting my sights on anything in the future. I think it is just taking it one step at a time and really focusing on that.”
And that way of thinking leads us to England Under-20s’ clash with Wales on Friday night as Oliver and company aim for back-to-back wins in the Six Nations.
Following a fourth-place finish in last year’s championships, there was a changing of the guard with Mapletoft stepping into the head coach role and after guiding the Under-20s to the last four of the world championships back in July, England are continuing to build in the right direction.
“It [a win] would be massive for us against Wales,” Oliver says. “I think the boys did really well to go over there [to Italy] and start the campaign with a win. That is what we aimed to do and I think we are really excited about where we can go.
“Going away to Italy with the boys, I think just hearing the noise, I have never played in front of that many people before so it was an amazing experience. I think this weekend will be similar and different. It will probably be more special in front of a home crowd and to just take that opportunity, if it comes, will be amazing.”
Oliver is once again amongst the replacements on Friday night but if his time with Tynedale and in National League Rugby is anything to go by, the young hooker will be more than ready to take his opportunity when it undoubtedly arises.
Make sure you follow National League Rugby on social media across the course of the season!