Planning for the next generation

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When Ioan Lloyd came on for a try scoring Bristol Bears debut against Bath in the opening round of the Gallagher Premiership it certainly garnered a lot of attention.

He only turned 18 in April, completing his A Level studies at Clifton College over the summer, and looked assured when coming in at a crucial time in a big local derby. There’s not many more high pressure situations than appearing for the first time in front of 30,000+ spectators and the BT Sport cameras.

Why it garnered a lot more attention than usual in South Wales though is that, as his name might give away, Ioan is a Welshman. A Wales U18 international and former Cardiff Blues U16 player, as well as a former Ysgol Glantaf pupil.

Of course, as is always the case when a young Welsh player pops up on the far side of the Severn Bridge, questions were asked about how it came to pass that another talented young player should be lost to England, and whether he’d have realised such potential had he stayed in South Wales.

The answer to the second question is tough to produce. Yes players like Lloyd, Callum Sheedy, Matt Protheroe, Louis Rees-Zammit, Tommy Reffell and Sam Costelow, amongst many others, are kicking on well in England, but the Academies back home are still pumping out talented players.

The answer to the first question is largely straight forward though, and it comes down to education. The suggestion in Ioan Lloyd’s case is that he, as well as his two brothers, were offered scholarships to the highly respected Clifton College. Few students and their parents would turn that down.

Ioan Lloyd is congratulated on a debut try

Other independent schools in England such as Millfield and Oakham have all been used to entice young Welsh talent away, as have the sporting achievements of Hartpury, something that the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions struggle to compete with.

One area of the whole debate that did strike me as worth comparing though, and that could be used to keep young Welsh players in the country, is whether Ioan Lloyd would have been making his debut for Cardiff Blues at 18 had he stayed.

Now, as mentioned above, trying to compare whether he’d have kicked on in the same way at Cardiff Blues as he has at Bristol Bears is nigh on impossible. However, the wider point is about whether we are introducing young players well enough at the Arms Park.

On the face of it the answer is yes. Looking at the last few seasons we have seen Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Garyn Smith, Harri Millard, Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill all become Cardiff Blues regulars and even Wales internationals.

Dig a bit deeper though, and the transitions on the most part were far from smooth.

Players like Dillon Lewis, Garyn Smith and Aled Summerhill have taken a relatively long time to get a run of games in order to make their mark as first team players.

Then the likes of Shane Lewis-Hughes, Harri Millard and Owen Lane have only received their shots due to injuries suffered by team-mates, rather than being part of any notable pathway towards first team minutes once they had graduated the Indigo Group Premiership.

So let’s assume that Lloyd had developed in the same fashion at Cardiff Blues as he has at Bristol Bears, and the fair conclusion is that no, he wouldn’t be making his debut at the Arms Park this season, let alone coming on against Scarlets or Ospreys.

The case study is Ben Thomas, who has consistently impressed throughout the development pathway, captaining Cardiff and Vale College’s 1st XV, standing out for Cardiff Blues U18, earning Wales U20 honours and winning the Premiership’s Young Player of the Year last season.

So is he involved with the first team this season? Well he has trained with them in pre-season and went on the training camp to South Africa, but his only on-field minutes have come back with Cardiff RFC, where we already know he is too good against semi-professional players.

I see little reason why he couldn’t have been utilised as a replacement, coming on to experience senior professional rugby in the Guinness Pro14, and hope that he will be doing that very shortly as at nearly 21 you would hope he would be ready.

Similar stories can also be told of James Botham, Alun Lawrence and Ben Murphy, while players such as Teddy Williams, Jamie Hill and Ioan Davies are well on the way towards the first team and a little exposure would not go amiss.

With players in the Cardiff Blues U16 and U18 setups still being poached by independent schools and Gallagher Premiership teams over the Bridge, seeing a pathway that leads directly to the first team in just a few years could well be a reason to stay in South Wales.

Just a thought!

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