Four Bath Rugby Academy players featured in England Under-20s’ comeback win over France Under-20s in the opening round of the 2021 U20 Six Nations Championships.
Orlando Bailey and Ewan Richards earned their tournament debuts from the start, taking the 15 and four shirts respectively while Nahum Merigan and Tom Carr-Smith came off the bench at Cardiff Arms Park.
England trailed 19-3 at the break but five tries in second half secured a bonus-point win for Alan Dickens’ side.
In mild, overcast conditions in south Wales, it was Les Bleus who took the lead inside three minutes when Alexandre Tchaptchet broke the defensive live and fed Nelson Epee and the wing dived over in the corner, with Thimault Debaes converting.
England’s first entry into opposition 22 saw Worcester fly half Fin Smith, on his first start, knock over a simple penalty, but France got their second score when Debaes’ clever cross field kick was perfectly measured for Epee to catch and cross.
Epee had his hat-trick within 21 minutes when France attacked down the blind side, and Léo Barré fed him and the left wing easily sprinted in. A dominant first 40 minutes for France meant they led 19-3.
England improved from the first whistle of the second half and after a succession of pick and drives, London Irish flanker Lucas Brooke pounced from the back of a ruck, with Smith adding the extras.
Their second try arrived within four minutes when replacement Sam Bailey, of Harlequins, was the beneficiary of a powerful driving maul from a lineout, as Smith’s conversion saw England reduce the deficit to two points with their best spell of the game.
Debaes’ penalty got France’s first points after the break, but England’s attack continued to thrive in the second half with Orlando Bailey playing a pivotal role.
The Bath fly-half, playing at full-back, collected the ball at first receiver, stepped sharply off his right foot, handed off the first defender and broke the line to roll over under the sticks.
Smith’s conversion giving England the lead for the first time as the clock hit 56 minutes.
The momentum shift continued England’s way when Smith’s lofted, looping pass to the left wing allowed Exeter’s Arthur Relton to stroll in, and Smith composed himself to nail the conversion from the touchline.
It was off the back off another driving maul from a throw in that Bailey went in for his second try as England’s finishers all contributed to their outstanding second half, with Smith’s conversion keeping up his 100% record from the tee on the day.
The victory means England are unbeaten since 2016 against France in this competition and move onto their second match of the tournament when they face Scotland on Friday (14:00 kick-off BST).
Dickens said: “We were pretty calm at half time and I put it on the players who had a moment to themselves then we split into forwards and backs and they came up with what we wanted to do – luckily they were the same points we as coaches were thinking as well.
“At 19-3 down we went onto the pitch in the second half and produced an excellent performance.
“We had to work out tactically how we could adapt during that game and we did. The first half we were pretty slow at the breakdown on both sides of the ball but we put it into practice in the second half and got the rewards.
“I’m really proud of all of them, they showed outstanding character and I was never in any doubt they would put in that kind of performance in the second half.”