It’s been quite the headache for Gallagher Premiership bosses such as Pat Lam of Bristol since last March when rugby in England was stopped for the first lockdown – how do you ensure the development of young players isn’t stunted when they have little or no opportunity of game time?

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In the past, there would be ample options for a coach to keep a club’s youngsters ticking over. Aside from the Premiership Cup, the Premiership Rugby Shield was always one prime popular outlet but that B team tournament – previously known as the Monday night A-League – has been shelved since the pandemic struck and Premiership officials currently have no plans to bring it out of cold storage any time soon.  

There was also the option of being shipped out on loan to secure game time at a lower level and get young players used to the more bruising demands of adult rugby. However, with no ball kicked in anger in the Championship these past ten months and with grassroots leagues such as National One suspended, that developmental avenue has also been closed off.  

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It’s a situation that leaves the futures of young players delicately balanced in the hands of Premiership bosses, a potentially stunting dynamic where the emphasis could be more on getting the next result rather than on developing talent for the long-term future.   

Bristol are one club trying to balance that equation, getting Premiership results while all the time keeping an eye on the next wave of players on the fringes and keeping them motivated and developing. Going by the club website, Bears boss Lam is listed as having a senior squad of 42 as well as an integrated academy squad of a dozen youngsters.  

That is a lot of people to keep happy and keeping the kids champing at the bit is a challenge that appears to be trundling along nicely despite the pandemic restrictions. Academy golden boy Ioan Lloyd was capped twice by Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup, while much was also made the other week about how George Kloska.

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He was only selected due to Bristol having to isolate two sets of front rows following contract tracing protocols, but he scored a New Year’s Day try on his Premiership debut against Newcastle and was the man of the match. A very nice day’s work. 

Ten months into the pandemic which has limited game time opportunities outside of the senior team for kids with potential, Lam has addressed the question of how Bristol go about ensuring the development of their young players isn’t stunted.  

“It’s the quality of the staff, your athletic performance staff, your medical staff and your rugby knowledge, and having Jordan Crane in here as part of the academy transition programme and senior coach as well,” he explained.

“You’re ticking off physically, their mental and also the technical and tactical as you go through. These guys are training week in week out with some of the best players in the world, so some of the contacts that they are getting. 

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“When they played Ealing (in two recent A team friendlies), for example, and we organised those games, they handled that really well and the reason they did was because of all the checks and part of their development that we all monitor but they also getting full-on contacts sometimes in the sessions that we do here. 

“Everyone has their own individual performance plan as we guide them and go through but every part of the pillar of development is looked at.

“The other thing for them to recognise as well whether it is George or Ioan and these guys, even Callum (Sheedy), I said right from the beginning you’re not playing because you have made it, you’re playing because it is part of your development. 

“So just because you play a Premiership game… I’m contracted by agents who say, ‘Oh, he has played four or five games for the Premiership, he’s not No1’. I say, ‘No, we have a couple of injuries, so he has got a chance, this is part of his growth and how he can get better’.

“That is how you build the experience. So keeping them grounded and understanding whether they are playing or whether they are training with the main group, it’s all about them learning and becoming better.”

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