Leading age-group, academy and school rugby coaches say blinkered management, flawed decision-making and petty jealousies have negatively affected the development of England’s next generation of young players. Despite boasting the world’s largest pool of registered youngsters, the Rugby Football Union stands accused of failing to maximise its resources and of allowing hundreds of potential top‑level athletes to drift out of the sport.
One experienced Premiership academy manager has said he believes up to 20% of the country’s most talented teenage players each year are being overlooked or blithely ignored and that excessive pressure on many academy youngsters is adversely affecting their exam results. There has also been an instance of disillusioned parents threatening legal action to force a Premiership club to agree to their rejected teenage son playing elsewhere and of agents targeting promising schoolboys as young as 14.
Even the much-vaunted regional club academy pathway funded by the RFU is prompting frustration, amid complaints the system unfairly favours big-city clubs. With the coronavirus lockdown having halted all rugby, a number of highly regarded development coaches believe now is the moment to reappraise the entire national age-group structure.
Among them is John Fletcher, the popular head of the England Under‑18s side for a decade until he was abruptly sacked two years ago in a shake-up under the now-departed Dean Ryan and Nigel Melville. Fletcher believes the steady churn of individuals and conflicting policies at Twickenham have weakened England’s national age-group programme and says that Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s new director of performance rugby, faces a sizable repair job.
“Nationally I think we lost our way. Nigel and Dean took us in a direction they clearly thought was the right one but, in hindsight, quite a bit of what they did was not that helpful,” Fletcher says. “There was some stuff that was good but a lot they did will be changed. Some other unions have not only caught us up but are looking to go past us. We’ve definitely got work to do.”
Northampton’s former academy manager Simon Sinclair also believes a widespread overhaul is needed. Sinclair, one of a number of people to assist in the development of the England flanker Lewis Ludlam, insists the regulations surrounding academy catchment areas need reviewing. “How is it fair that some clubs have 18,000 registered young players to pick from while others have 5,000? There must be 20% of players in certain regions who are getting missed.”
Sinclair, now director of sport at Bedford modern school after a 14-year association with Saints, argues that many of those unluckily dumped at under-16 level would easily be good enough to thrive elsewhere. He also cites the case of the young player whose club dropped him from their squad – without any feedback – yet still refused to release him to another Premiership side. Subsequently the teenager concerned has represented England Under-20s and made his senior first-team debut. “My concern is that at least 15% of the quality players out there are getting lost,” says Sinclair. “You only have to talk to [Northampton’s] Piers Francis. He gets binned, goes to New Zealand and ends up playing for England at the World Cup.”
Both Fletcher and Sinclair also propose shifting the key years for identifying elite players to under-17 and under-19, rather than under-16 and under-18, to avoid clashing with GCSEs and A-levels. An under-19 league would assist late developers, not least young props, and also provide a useful bridge between school or college and senior club rugby, a perennial English weakness. “That’s the big one for me,” says Fletcher. “The problem’s been there for ever and we still haven’t solved it.”
Sinclair believes it would also be helpful educationally – “Running camps just before kids take their exams is pretty nuts” – and is also calling for tighter controls on agents contacting schoolboys via social media. “Agents standing around watching under‑15 and under-16 school games is terrible. They say: ‘This is our living,’ but from a safeguarding point of view you can’t be contacting kids.” Nor is endless academy training and bench-warming any substitute for game-time.
“These youngsters aren’t playing enough rugby,” Sinclair adds. “I would also say the RFU have missed a massive opportunity with university rugby. Look at South Africa. Their system is brilliant. We haven’t done that and haven’t given enough funding to universities.”
Tony Yapp, the head coach of newly promoted National League One side Taunton Titans and a long-time coach at Blundell’s school and Exeter University, is similarly keen for a rethink. “Kids in academies see themselves as being on the path to Premiership rugby but not many make it,” he says. “They don’t deal with that very well in some cases and a lot give up playing rugby. For me having players in local teams would be a better model rather than Premiership clubs taking them away and, at the end of it, telling 95% of them they’re not required any more.”
Some club academies, furthermore, now prefer to draw from one or two colleges, avoiding talented players at other schools, because it is easier to control players’ conditioning programmes. Flawed selection will always exist – the late-developing Henry Slade could not even make the Devon Under-15s side – but Sinclair believes Twickenham has latterly been off the pace. “When John Fletcher, Peter Walton and Russell Earnshaw left, they knew every single boy in the system. It went from there to bringing in part-time coaches from clubs and asking clubs to put players forward. Did they not know them? Have they watched any games?”
Fletcher would be open to returning to the RFU, if asked, although the acrimonious end to his previous stint was tough to take at the time. “I didn’t enjoy the last couple of years, to be honest. I was struggling with where we were going.” He also feels the current lockdown may yet prove beneficial in the longer term. “We can be more creative and do things slightly differently. In the southern hemisphere they say having less resources makes you more resourceful. I truly believe that.”
O’Shea, who commenced his new role in January having helped instigate the regional academy system during his first stint with the governing body, also accepts that the RFU, amid its other pressing issues, has plenty to tackle. “We would love to say we have the perfect system and sport is an exact science where you never make a mistake in selection, but we don’t inhabit that world,” he says. “However, I’m confident we have areas we can improve on to ensure the pathway to a constantly winning England team is even stronger.” Many believe a substantial amount of repaving is badly needed.