It feels like I write or talk about the pathway just about once every week, so I guess one more blog won’t hurt.
Ever since starting up this site I have taken a keen interest in the development pathway, and keeping an eye on Cardiff Blues academy players. There is definitely something satisfying about identifying a player as a future star as they make their way through the college, age grade and Premiership, before making their debut in the first team.
Alongside being a semi-regular attendee at Cardiff RFC games, made harder by living on the wrong side of the east/west divide, I get a decent insight into most levels of the pathway. Particularly the top end, the 18-23 year old section.
Currently, that is the exact area of the pathway that is being reviewed by the Welsh Rugby Union. The reason for that is simple, the professional game is evolving at a rate of knots, and we’re in very real danger of falling too far behind.
The background to this is one of partial change that has failed to fit the bill thus far. From the 2003 advent of regional rugby until the summer of 2015 the development pathway looked something like Dewar Shield > regional age grade > Welsh Premiership > professional first team.
That’s a fairly simplistic way of looking at it, and there have been small changes as the WRU Colleges League gained more importance, the Anglo-Welsh Cup developed a serious development brief, and of course some players will benefit from a national U20 call-up.
However, the summer of 2015 brought about a change whereby the regional entrants into the British and Irish Cup switched from one club in the respective region to a ‘Premiership Select XV’ which, for all intents and purposes, was a botch job A team.
Three years on and, in terms of results, the Premiership Select XVs have been an unmitigated failure. For the Cardiff Blues, there have been two wins and a draw across 18 games, not once coming close to qualifying for the knockout stages.
In terms of development there has been partial success, with a stream of youngsters getting exposure at a higher level than the Welsh Premiership, including the likes of Dillon Lewis and Seb Davies who have now gone on to win senior Wales honours, however the likelihood is most of the players could have made it anyway.
Now, with the English Championship sides withdrawing from the British and Irish Cup, effectively killing it off, and with questions raised over the benefits of the Anglo-Welsh Cup, there is a chance for the professional game in Wales to revolutionise the area of the pathway between age grade and first team rugby.
It is now clear that the gap in quality between the Welsh Premiership and Guinness Pro14 is such that it is almost impossible to breach.
At this point it should be pointed out that the above statement is not a slight on the Premiership, as has recently been implied by players, fans and officials of the clubs on social media, leading to an image being created showing all the Wales players in the Six Nations squad and which semi-professional team they played for.
The Premiership has done a good job of assisting the development of players over the last 15 years, and continues to play a role in getting players just out of age grade and college rugby used to the physicality of senior rugby.
However, if we’re happy just sticking with good, which is at risk of dropping to a lower level of assistance in the near future, then we may as well just admit that our professional club sides won’t be challenging regularly in the league and Europe, and the national team doesn’t have ambition to beat the likes of New Zealand and Australia.
I am not calling for the pathway to change because the Premiership has failed in it’s developmental role, I am calling for change because there is now a need for better development of players in a professional environment.
Skill levels are going up all the time, players are getting bigger and stronger every season, the professional game is changing at a rate of knots. It is a rate of knots that the semi-professional game, with it’s training on a Tuesday and Thursday night just cannot keep up with.
So, what’s the answer? Well, there’s two as far as I can see. The Premiership is totally revolutionised, streamlined to eight teams with two from each region, and funding increased or fully blown professional A teams.
The slimmed down Premiership option is an interesting one. More funding would increase contact time with the players which, along with the fewer teams, should result in an increase in quality as the best semi-pro players are supplemented by the academy members.
Regulations would be brought in to ensure a set number of players under-23 were included in each matchday squad, and the Premiership would be an improved vehicle of development between the college/age grade game and the Pro14.
However, there are big issues to face. Which two teams are invited from each region? Is there meritocracy involved? How long would it be before this solution is no longer fit for purpose? And, crucially, does the WRU have the required funds to properly finance a streamlined league?
With those questions hanging over idea number one, moving on to regional A teams strikes me as the best solution to the pathway problem.
These would be operated by the four professional teams, and would mean young players coming through academies and onto their first senior contracts would be able to train together regularly, taking away the Barbarian aspect of Premiership Select XVs and the temporary measure of Anglo-Welsh weeks.
It would be funded by the money from the Premiership, offering each side around £400k, which would be used to bolster squad numbers. Imposing restrictions on the amount of over-23 players in the A team matchday squads would ensure this money is spent on young players, rather than new signings for the first team.
That additional funding should be enough for between 10-15 players which would be enough to supplement the squads the professional teams already have, plus the best of the under-18s if they are deemed ready.
Fixtures would come from each Welsh side playing each other home and away (six games) and the Irish A teams home and away (eight games), while there is also a minimum of four games if the Anglo-Welsh Cup remains, plus potential for fixtures against Scotland’s BT Academy, or their newly created semi-professional level.
Meanwhile, A teams would also allow the Premiership to flourish in it’s own right. There would be initial hurdles to overcome as funding decreased, with either salary caps or strict amateurism imposed. However, the clubs would be free to compete as the top of the community game without the shackles of a ‘development league’.
Some sections of supporters will no doubt claim that predictably low attendances are a reason not to bring in A teams but, in reality, it’s an entirely non-point. Manchester United, the biggest sports team in the United Kingdom, average 1,900 at their U23 home games. Crowd size means nothing at this level.
Now is the time to get the pathway right for at least the next 15 years. No more botch jobs, no mare halfway houses. Some people will be pleased, some people will be angry, you can’t please everyone.
I would urge the WRU to do the right thing and give our young players the best chance of realising their potential, and give Team Wales the chance to finally beat New Zealand. Show some backbone!