Now, as good of a second row as Mr T may be, this isn’t about the fictional US Special Forces unit. It’s about what I see as the missing piece of the regional development pathway puzzle and how we can solve it to maximise potential for young players to make it in the first team.
Over the last few weeks there have been a number of games that you might class as ‘development games’. Two British and Irish Cup pool games followed by two Anglo-Welsh Cup pool games have been played by roughly the same group of players, despite being under the names of ‘Cardiff Blues Premiership Select’ for the BIC, and the regular ‘Cardiff Blues’ in the AW.
The group of players involved have largely been drawn from the academy/young professional pool of players, supplemented by a mixture of senior professionals in need of game time and semi-professionals playing well in the Premiership.
Those academy and young professional players are the focus of these games, and have already come through a well-structured development pathway up to this point. Schools rugby is well run in the region with the Dewar Shield offering strong competition in the U15 age grade, before Cardiff Blues academy involvement starts at U16s with North and South teams playing each other and their Welsh professional club counterparts, plus Rygbi Gogledd Cymru.
The next step is WRU U18 competitions while also playing for colleges, with Coleg y Cymoedd, Cardiff and Vale, Whitchurch High, Ysgol Glantaf and Cowbridge Comprehensive offering plenty of options in the Cardiff Blues development region. Following that if they are deemed capable of stepping up from age grade rugby then they are allocated to a senior club, either Pontypridd, Merthyr or Cardiff in the Premiership, or Glamorgan Wanderers in the Championship.
In the past at this point they would then be expected to prove themselves at Welsh domestic level before stepping up to the first team, but recently the gap has widened between the semi-professional and Pro12 level to the extent that the step up would be too great for many young players to successfully make.
As such, last season the decision was made to take the British and Irish Cup competition off the clubs and create ‘Premiership Select XVs’ run by the professional clubs made up of young players and the best Premiership players.
Since then though it’s been a baptism of fire. None of the Welsh PS sides made it past the group stages last season, and in Cardiff’s case it was just one win from six, with two defeats already this season.
What’s going wrong? Well I know for a fact that Cardiff Blues choose a number of Premiership players for their PS sides just to keep the clubs happy and represented. This is negative in two ways; firstly it means that semi-professional players are taking the places of promising youngsters who require game time at this level.
Also, it means that the team has no training time together. Semi-professional players with jobs may have work so unable to train full-time, they all have other clubs meaning that even in the week they may have together, the Premiership Select team will likely never train together as a full unit.
This then creates the scene we saw at Sandy Park recently when the Cardiff Blues Anglo-Welsh Cup team went down to the English Premiership with an average age of 20, such was the need to give as many youngsters a run-out as possible after they missed out on Anglo-Welsh action. Inevitably it would seem, they were hammered all over the pitch and suffered an embarrassing 62-25 loss.
So how do we fix this? In my opinion the way forward is official A teams to fill that void between the Welsh Premiership and the Pro12.
We saw from the last Anglo-Welsh game what the team could look like as a proper A side. A majority core of academy players and young professionals, with a sprinkling of first team experience and the odd top Welsh Premiership player, rather than a random mix of kids and semi-pros.
Training together regularly as a squad with a set coaching staff can only improve the players and on-field results, but the main improvement to the system must be the schedule of the A team, at the moment there is just not enough rugby.
As far as I can see there are two options; option one is to explore the possibilities of joining the English Premiership A side competition. With 14 games to be had across the season, plus the Anglo-Welsh Cup fixtures, the British and Irish Cup could go back to the semi-professional clubs with the A teams having more than enough rugby to develop players at a high level whilst giving game time to first team members in need of it.
This isn’t particularly likely however, as the English sides aren’t rushing to do business with the Welsh sides, and why should they? So the secondary option is developing our own A team structure. British and Irish Cup, Anglo-Welsh Cup, plus six games with home and away fixtures against the other Welsh sides and maybe even another two if RGC could be included.
Constant rugby seeing the young players train and play together on a regular basis, with real A teams removing the necessity to include Premiership players and providing opportunity for out of favour senior players as well. Performances improve, results improve and player quality gets better as young players benefit from a proper step between semi-professional senior rugby and the Pro12.
In my mind it’s an obvious step, and particularly with the struggles the Wales national team are having currently it could certainly increase the depth and quality of the player pool the coaches have to pick from.
In the words of Mr T himself, it’s time for the WRU and Pro Rugby Wales to ‘quit their jibber jabber’ and get on with maximising the undoubted potential of the regional rugby development pathways.