Before we start, and more importantly, before supporters from Ireland, Scotland, Italy, France and England take to the streets with fire and pitchforks, this article isn’t stating that Welsh rugby has the best development system in the Northern Hemisphere. Ireland’s provinces clearly have some of the most effective development pathways in the global game. Leinster’s academy is arguably the best in Europe and are currently producing backrow forwards like some weird genetics based sci-fi series on HBO.
But whilst many nations are developing streams of young talent, the fact that 24 of the 30 youngest players ever to make their debut in the Celtic-League (and its various progressions) are Welsh, is worthy of discussion. That stat alone is intriguing and has arguably contributed to the current Welsh squad having its greatest depth since the game went professional.
But to appreciate the cream of young Welsh test players, one must first go back to the milking stage, where the four Welsh regions, and Welsh clubs, have an enviable record in selecting young players. And to fully appreciate the reasons for this development of youth in Wales, we need to utilise a level of rugby-related OCD beyond that even of mine.
The amount of rugby that I watch is probably unhealthy, but when compared to Richie Rees, the Head of Transition for Cardiff Blues, it looks normal. Each week Richie Rees is watching about 10 times the amount of footage that an obsessive like myself would, and for good reason – he is responsible for the transitional period between age-grade and senior rugby for the Cardiff Blues region.
That Welsh rugby has blooded so many young players isn’t surprising to Richie. The fact that the Guinness PRO-14 teams work on lower salary caps, when compared to the English and French club teams, means that squads need to develop younger players.
The conversation was eye-opening and Rees is quite rightly proud of what’s happening in his region and right across Wales. “I don’t think we’ve given ourselves and the WRU enough credit regarding the amount that is invested in the pathway,” he said. “In general, we may not have the strength in depth from a senior end, so sometimes young players are given a chance when in other systems they may be overlooked. Whilst some of the youngest players may not be the best in their position currently, the aim is that by next season, they could be.”
The real benefit of developing players at such a young age is obvious. You need only see the development of Jarrod Evans (pictured) and the stable of young front row forwards at Cardiff Blues to understand the benefits of selecting players when under 20 years of age. Not only do you prevent your squad from becoming top/wage heavy, but you’re able to mould a young player – which is far easier than trying to remould a senior player
With regards to the Cardiff Blues’ Jarrod Evans and Dillon Lewis, the benefits of young talent are obvious to Rees, “Jarrod and Dillon are used to a playing strategy and are comfortable with it. If players are brought in at a later stage in their development, it can take up to 18 months to learn a club’s defensive and attacking systems. You need only look at Jarrod and Dillon’s career acceleration to see the benefits of giving young players senior experience,” he added.
Possibly the greatest example of the Welsh regions promotion of younger players is the current generation of locks who are coming through. Last season it looked as though Alun-Wyn Jones, Jake Ball and Corey Hill were all that Wales had in the warehouse, whereas the Osprey’s Adam Beard and Cardiff Blues’ Seb Davies are now in the shop-window for RWC 2019.
But it isn’t just Adam Beard and Seb Davies that have impressed Richie when it comes to Wales’ youthful potential. “From my scrum-half skills work with Tomos Williams, he has all of the attributes required by a world-class nine. However, from a long-term perspective, also keep any eye on Jamie Hill at Pontypridd, Sam Costello at Leicester Tigers, and Aneurin Owen at the Dragons,” Rees pointed out.
The future of the academies in Wales, and many of the Guinness PRO14 countries, looks promising. And it is undoubtedly the future of club rugby. Current wage inflation will be hard to sustain and growing your own is far more sustainable than buying someone else’s.
Big thank you to Richie Rees for the chat, one of the nicest men in rugby.
PS: Join the #BlackandWhite debate and tweet us your club’s top five young players
‘All eyes on’ – Dragons
Scarlets v Glasgow may seem like the glamour tie of the weekend in the Guinness PRO14. But Dragons v Leinster is intriguing. Whilst much of modern rugby can be numerically recorded and analysed, one thing that can’t be accurately measured is player confidence.
— Dragons 🏉 (@dragonsrugby) November 26, 2018
After their win over Edinburgh, Dragons will be desperate to deliver two victories on the bounce. Leinster may not be the obvious opposition for another ‘W’, but it could work in Dragons’ favour. With the possibility of a few senior players rested after a busy international period where they contributed an insane number of players to Ireland, it may be that Leinster don’t bring all their test stars to Rodney Parade.
Dragons will need to be competitive, as the chance to win two games in succession is a rare opportunity for teams in the lower half of the league. Keep an eye on Aaron Wainwright for the Dragons, who has had an impressive Autumn Series for Wales.