With the halcyon days of summer getaways slowly fading into the impending seasonal change, there has been little room for relaxation and rest in the last few months for some of Irish’s Academy talent.
Lucas Brooke (back-row), Chandler Cunningham-South (back-row), Alexander Harmes (winger) and Mikey Summerfield (prop) were the Club’s foregoing representatives of the Rose as the England under-20s travelled to Italy for an inaugural Under-20 Six Nations Summer Series.
The competition, a temporary proxy for the World Rugby Under-20 Championships, hosted the usual lineup of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, and also accommodated for the additions of South Africa and Georgia’s under-20 sides.
Cunningham-South’s journey to and inclusion in Alan Dickens’ age-grade level was an accelerated one to say the least, signing for the Exiles back in February 2022 and playing three Under-20 Six Nations games for England before his first appearance for Irish against Leicester Tigers in the Premiership Rugby Cup.
“It was cool, I came and played a few games on loan and was asked to come into one of the England camps,” he explained.
“Patrick O’Grady, our Academy Manager here, notified me that I was wanted in the camp the next week.
“There wasn’t too much pressure coming from the outside, I’m still young and still in my first year so I wouldn’t say there’s much pressure outside of what I held myself to.
“I thought I trained well and ended up playing with the boys for Alan [Dickens], I’ve ended up sticking around and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Irish’s newest acquisition beyond this year’s Senior Academy intake registered an impressive 90% tackle success rate (27 completed out of 30 attempts) in the Summer Series.
His running threat, as shown in his small cameos in green last term, was prominent enough in Italy- breaking five tackles and retaining a record of 6.85 metres per carry.
Lucas Brooke, now a two-year under-20 player for his country, boasted the most experience with England heading into the tournament, having made his debut in thew 2021 Under-20 Six Nations.
Despite having only saying goodbye to his teenage years in January, Brooke embraced his fresh role as one of the squad’s more regular faces, espousing leadership qualities beyond his years as he confronted a degree of pressure and expectation of his own.
“Having come off the back of playing for the under-20s last year and going again this year, I had a chat with Alan Dickens and the England coaches and they wanted me to be a bit more vocal, and take on a senior role.
“They emphasised that I shouldn’t saturate the points being communicated too much, because there a lot of players there with talent and voices too.
“I wanted to put my two cents in but not overdo what was trying to be taught, so it’s striking that balance of making your point but doing it when it matters.
“That comes with more focus on leading through my actions, and that is the player I want to be.
“There were a lot of first years coming into our under-20s community so I did take them under my wing, but I really wanted to push on to try and win trophies in the Summer Series, having not been involved as much in the Six Nations this year.
“Because it was a squad with a lot of new faces, I and a lot of the second-year boys wanted to bring us all together to do well and I felt like we did do that.”
South Africa under-20s awaited England in the opener and it was the former who came out on top in a 22-30 win in Treviso, but three Exiles stood out in their contributions.
Brooke committed to four tackles, one pass, and six metres from one carry in his appearance in the final quarter after replacing Lewis Chessum of Leicester Tigers, whilst Summerfield also boasted four from four tackle attempts.
Irish's other loose forward representative played the full 80 minutes and made 71 metres from 11 carries (the second most of any England player and most of any forward) and nine tackles were the third highest on the England team.
Brooke and Cunningham-South, both back-row talents who made their Club debuts in cup competition, have formulated a strong friendship that goes beyond familiar positioning on field.
Having with roomed with each other last month, a bond has only been strengthened in their time in Treviso and Verona.
“I got to room with him while we were over in Italy, he’s pretty clean I’m happy to say!” Cunningham-South cheekily divulged.
“We were always on the PlayStation too, which was great fun.
“He’s a very hard-working player, probably the one with one of the strongest work ethics on the pitch at any time.
“He’s always making tackles, and a good player to have on your team because you always know he’s trying to get better and work for the team.”
Praise was reciprocated by his compatriot, outlining the rounded character his roommate possesses to bed him into life with England and Irish.
“He is a loud character, he’s got a bit about him but he finds the perfect balance of professionalism and having banter off the pitch.
“On the pitch, he’s a serious, professional operator.”
Brooke replaced his Clubmate Cunningham-South in their side’s second game and first win against France, averaging six metres from three carries with five tackles to boot.
In his time on the field, the Kiwi-born flanker made the second-most metres of any England player for the second game running with 78 and five tackles, whilst Summerfield contributed the joint-most of any England under-20s replacement (seven, missing no attempts) with a turnover won as England came out 29-20 victors.
London Irish’s storied history in producing international talent over the years has been epitomised in recent history by former under-20 stars Henry Arundell and Will Joseph breaking into the England senior side.
Lucas Brooke spoke of the pride of instead pulling on a white shirt, whilst still standing arm-in-arm with three other familiar teammates.
“I love playing along with the Irish boys, and seeing us succeed and doing really well.
“The other lads are really good players as well, so when you have the calibre of those boys beside you gives you a confidence boost.
“It’s also a reflection of the strength of our Academy and the players we’re producing, which goes back to the quality of our coaches.”
Pointing to an improvement in his set-piece work in recent months, Summerfield credits coaches at his home club for his development as a young player.
“I owe those guys a lot to my development, they give up an awful lot of time to us and coaches like Jonathan Fisher has been with me since I was about 16 and he’s come up as a coach as I’ve come up as a player.
“He’s worked tirelessly with me, whenever I want I can message him and we can go through clips and it’s the same with Ross [McMillan].
“He’s always helpful when we go through clips, he is critical with me but that’s exactly what I need in terms of my development.”
Cunningham-South, perhaps Irish’s most uninitiated member of the Senior Academy last year, still has felt the benefit of the coaching set-up at Hazelwood to further advance his international goals.
“I’d say Fish [Jonathan Fisher] has helped me out an awful lot, he’s been a key part for me with the smaller details of the game which I feel I am getting stronger in, but have still have work to do.”
In the final pool stage encounter, the young Exiles made their imprint on the affair despite the result.
Mikey Summerfield and Alexander Harmes both touched down for their first tries for their country against Ireland, the latter of whom on his full debut under Dickens in what finished a 36-37 defeat.
Summerfield describes the elation of registering his first five points for England early on in the second half, with each score contributing to a try bonus that enabled England to finish in second place in Pool A.
“It was a massive moment of pride for me, it was good to finally get one after eight games- I’ll take that!
“I was happy with it at the time but then you always think of what the next job was in the game.”
An incredible 100% tackle rate was held by Summerfield throughout the tournament, the only England player to do so in multiple games, with 18 successful tackles.
Harmes made his debut against Ireland a memorable one, bagging the second of his side’s three first half tries in the opening five minutes.
On top of three tackles and two passes, the electric winger additionally averaged 10.6 metres in each of his five carries, which was the fourth-highest amongst England’s starters (Emeka Ilione 14.25 metres per carry, Iwan Stephens 11.8 metres per carry, Rekeiti Ma’asi-White 10.67 metres per carry, Alexander Harmes 10.6 metres per carry, Charlie Bracken 10.5 metres per carry).
Despite the close finish against Ireland, where Sam Prendergast’s late goal kick took his side to a famous win, Brooke (20 metres from five carries, three tackles), Summerfield and Cunningham-South (six tackles made, just under six metres per carry) all presented strong addition off the replacements bench.
The next game was indeed a cross-pool fixture against hosts Italy in Treviso, a challenging prospect for Brooke and co.
Having lost their Under-20 Six Nations Round 2 game against the same opponents in narrow fashion (a mere 6-0) earlier this year, the pre-match mindset was channelling vexation and countering with buoyancy.
“Coming second in our pool, which meant we were in a third/fourth place play-off but we wanted to do as well as we could.
“Having lost to Italy back in the Six Nations earlier this year, there was a lot of built-up energy and frustration from that game.
“Italy knew that, but we had to come in with cool heads knowing that we trained well that week in order to give the best performance we can.
“The game plan was to concentrate on the set-piece because they had a very strong scrum, we could take it from there as we knew what we were capable of but unfortunately, we couldn’t see it out.
“I was injured around the 25-minute mark and it’s a shame I couldn’t help out, but looking back on it I believe maybe with a few more weeks we could have gelled even more on the pitch- I believe we done well, nonetheless.”
Still achieving a tackle and five metres in each of his two carries, Brooke was replaced once more by his teammate who went on to make the second-most metres of any England player on the day (49) and seven tackles (joint-highest amongst England replacements).
Summerfield made three tackles in his 36 minutes as England relinquished third spot to Italy in another entertaining game, resulting in a 38-31 defeat.
“Probably just having a laugh with the boys, going to training and being a part of this close nit group this year has been a pleasure,” Summerfield stated of the month in Italy.
“Spending so much time with the boys and sharing the craic is great.”
Reflecting upon his time in Italy, Brooke now sees his under-20 international career come to an end having outgrown the age-grade system at England.
He recognizes his development in his game that the Summer Series has laid a platform for.
“I think my tackling and defensive dominance really kicked on in that tournament, as a flanker I really had to show what I could do in that regard.”
Brooke made successfully completed 13 of his 15 (86.6%) tackle attempts in the tournament, including two games with a 100% success rate.
“I thought my breakdown work was strong but I recognise there is a lot for me to work on and much for me to take from it.”
Looking ahead, Cunningham-South remains confident in England’s chances in the next calendar year, despite only acclimatising to his surroundings relatively recently.
“I feel like if we can let go of the last year and push on, we can do well,” he stated.
The squad will still be strong next year, so hopefully we can go a bit better in the Six Nations- that’s the goal.
“There’s a lot of talent amongst us, there is always that challenge of us coming together from different teams and set-ups and trying to gel how we all play.
“We were all very close as players but maybe it didn’t fully click on the pitch as we wanted, but that’s our aspirations for next year.
“We are aware of our potential, but these things can take time, we can be a very good side so we’re all prepared for another crack at it next year.”