Last week we highlighted the problem of England’s wasted rugby youth and wondered if the topic might chime with a few people. The ensuing days have been revealing and hugely instructive: messages have cascaded in from former internationals, from schoolboy coaches and from concerned parents alike, many raising more stark questions for those in charge of developing young players.
No one disputes there are good coaches or is suggesting the academies and the Rugby Football Union get everything wrong. Consider, however, the testimony of Mike Umaga, whose son Jacob is among the brightest young English playmaking talents. Mike’s younger brother, Tana, captained the All Blacks, while the elder sibling won 13 caps for Samoa, played professional league and union and has been coaching in England for two decades. And his verdict? Even some of the best English youngsters are succeeding in spite of the system rather than as a product of it.
Specifically, Umaga thinks English rugby has a problem with size. Ask him if the English “pathway” is tricky to negotiate, even for the gifted, and he speaks from the heart.
“Tricky is a bit of an understatement. It was tough for Jacob and ourselves as parents,” says the former Halifax league and Rotherham union player whose son switched from Leicester’s academy to Wasps in 2016. “Jacob was always deemed to be too small. At both Leicester and Wasps they said: ‘He needs to be bigger,’ and tried to put some unnecessary weight on him.”
Umaga’s polite response was that, given his genes, Jacob would probably turn out fine, not least because his July birthday put him at a disadvantage. “I’d say to coaches: ‘You can always add some poundage but the body needs to grow naturally as well. If myself and his uncle are anything to go by, he will grow.’”
It was depressing, therefore, when England’s age-group coaches began to say the same. “Before he went to the Under-20 World Cup he was put on a bulking programme. I was dismayed when he left because he wasn’t in any shape to perform at an elite tournament. He was overweight and hadn’t done a lot of conditioning. It was all about putting size on.”
Having grown up in New Zealand, where skill and speed are prioritised and there is less performance pressure on younger kids, Umaga knew there was another way. “There’s no substitute for skill and pace. Why not have those first and then you can manufacture the muscle? Jacob is only just starting to fill out now, aged 21. Everyone’s different. It’s not an exact science but some coaches try to make it one. There are so many factors you need to take into account.” Among them, he believes, is a lack of trust between certain academies, schools and, crucially, parents. Umaga and others believe the latter are often marginalised. “At times it’s about having the nuts – for want of a better word – to go and say: ‘Can you clarify this? We need to know how we can work towards making things better.’”
A further handicap, says Umaga, is the English tendency to ramp up pressure too young. “The start of their academy journey is under-13. What’s the point in that? That’s what a lot of people I speak to are saying. They are so far down in terms of their growth and there is so much rugby still to go.”
Too much early pressure can mean less enjoyment and, unlike in New Zealand where the school system dominates, English kids are beholden to various different masters.
“It’s one of the big issues over here. At 16 or 17 a lot of these boys might have four or five different teams to play for – school or college, academy, club, county and, if they’re lucky, country,” says Umaga. “On top of all that they’ve still got their education to get through. That’s a lot of stress at 16. I don’t think there is enough trust or liaison between some of these academies and the schools.”
Many of these laments are echoed at lower levels. Rob Sigley, like Umaga, gives daily thanks for rugby’s positive influence on his family. In Sigley’s case it offered salvation from the relentless bullying he suffered during his formative years in Tamworth. As a comprehensive pupil he also had frequent experience of county players who owed their selection to the better facilities and enhanced opportunities available at nearby private schools.
After being involved in the game at all levels as a player, coach, parent and agent, Sigley has a keen nose for such injustice. In particular, he tells of an assistant academy manager at a Premiership club who, at a trial, ignored all the smaller, skilful players and instead picked the biggest lads for the next stage of the developing player programme.
The explanation given – “I can make big lads into rugby players, but I can’t make good players bigger” – infuriates Sigley even now. “For me he is the antichrist of rugby and everything that is wrong. It’s a good job Damian McKenzie didn’t grow up where I live.”
Sigley, in an attempt to redress the balance, is hoping to launch the Second Chance Rugby Academy in January to help rejected teenagers. The aim is to offer a shop window for youngsters released by Premiership clubs and, perhaps, help them to secure school or university scholarship funding. Encouragingly, there have been supportive murmurings from within the RFU’s reshuffled age-group coaching structure.
Whatever unfolds, Umaga hopes his 12-year-old son, Caylen, who is already showing promise, will have a smoother path than Jacob. “Your original article has raised a lot of debate and conversation among a lot of coaches in the country. I don’t know if some people in academy setups are protecting their jobs but sometimes it feels as if it’s more about them than the kids.”
His final summary should also be pinned to a few English walls. “It’s because they’ve got the population that they can get away with it. It covers over the cracks, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t you look at the NZ model? Their resources are so much smaller yet they still churn out quality.” Even in these barren times this fundamental debate looks set to run and run.