The Gallagher Premiership and Guinness PRO14 may differ from the NFL in how they go about it, but the process of talent identification and player development is paramount to each competition’s ability to succeed as a professional sport.
Whereas the NFL reaps the uber-talented and resourced pool of players in the college football system, clubs, provinces and regions in the Premiership and PRO14 rely on privately-owned academies or union-controlled pathways out of school and into university or semi-professional rugby.
Each route has its own merits and though these things can often be quite cyclical, where a previously productive academy or college system has a quiet few years, certain institutions can swiftly become known for being particularly efficient at developing players at specific positions.
Miami was regularly referred to as ‘Wide Receiver U’ due to their ability to send high-level receivers to the NFL, whilst Alabama would have a strong grasp on the same mantle for running backs and linebackers right now. It’s a frequent debate among the fans and media of American sports, so what would happen if we transferred the same debate to the Premiership and PRO14?
Below, we have tried to breakdown the most productive academy or pathway in those two competitions over the last 10 or so years – capped at players below the age of 30 – to get an idea of who might be ‘lock A-Cad’, who is leading the way at fly-half and whose raft of wings are the envy of the northern hemisphere.
Continue reading below…
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Loosehead Prop – Bristol Bears
You thought we would go Leinster, right? It’s a fair assumption, given the province’s track record at the position, though Cian Healy falls just outside of this time period and the talented Andrew Porter has since been switched to tighthead. And in addition to that, Bristol’s crop gets nowhere near the appreciation it deserves.
First they brought through Mako Vunipola and then they backed it up with Ellis Genge. That’s the current England and British and Irish Lions starting loosehead and perhaps the biggest threat to his international jersey, both from the same club. Ollie Dawe has also impressed at the U20 level and after a brief sojourn at tighthead, has returned to his favoured position of loosehead where he should kick on. Then came Tom Rowlands who is currently playing BUCS Super Rugby at Bath University and the latest is Andrew Turner, an England U18 international who should be going on to a professional contract this summer.
Hooker – Saracens
It wasn’t going to take long for Saracens to get their name up here and few can argue with their production at the position. England’s incumbent starter, Jamie George, just sneaks in, whilst the club also developed one of his main rivals, Jack Singleton. In addition to the two England internationals, the club also moulded USA senior cap Kapeli Pifeleti, whom big things are expected of in the coming years, and they boast current England U20 Theo Dan.
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Tighthead Prop – Leinster
After narrowly missing out at loosehead, Leinster get themselves on the board at tighthead. Tadhg Furlong is the glittering jewel in their crown, although Porter is pushing him hard for province and for country. The Dubliners also brought through Marty Moore, who is doing an excellent job for Ulster, and they have Jack Aungier as the next man up on the production line.
Lock – Saracens
There’s plenty of competition here, not least so domestically where Bath have brought through Charlie Ewels and Tom Ellis, as well as sitting on a pair of very impressive U18s in Ewan Richards and Ethan Staddon. Over at Leinster, James Ryan is dominant at all levels with Ross Molony and Ryan Baird coming along in his wake, whilst Glasgow Warriors’ contingent of Jonny Gray, Scott Cummings, Callum Hunter-Hill and Cameron Henderson is equally eye-catching.
That said, none can match Saracens at this position, where Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe and Joel Kpoku are all excelling. George Kruis didn’t come through their U18 side, having grown up in Surrey, though they deserve some credit for spotting something in him that no one else did, whilst their impressive cadre is rounded out by Cameron Boon and Jonathan Kpoku, two players with plenty of long-term potential. Don’t sleep on U18 squad member Obinna Nkwocha, either.
Flanker – Dragons
The Dragons might seem an unusual choice at first, but if you delve into the players they have produced in recent years, they quickly look like a very solid selection. Welsh internationals Aaron Wainwright and Ollie Griffiths shine brightest at the moment, though it shouldn’t be too long before they are joined by the likes of Harrison Keddie and Taine Basham as senior international caps. James Benjamin shouldn’t go unrecognised, either, and lock Max Williams could be included as an option on the blindside, too.
The last 10 years have not been the kindest to the Munster academy, though their options on the flank certainly haven’t been limited. Jack O’Donoghue has done well whenever given an opportunity, whilst Gavin Coombes and John Hodnett are the future for the province. Peter O’Mahony falls just outside the bracket, but it’s enough for an honourable mention for the men from Limerick.
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No 8 – Leinster
As easy a call as Saracens were among the lock contenders, Leinster’s production at No 8 has been sublime. Even with the time frame missing out on a player as gifted as Jamie Heaslip, Leinster have still managed to nurture and bring through Jack Conan, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris. As far as the quality of that trio goes, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better group in the northern hemisphere at any single position. If you were to shift one of Deegan or Conan over to blindside, Leinster would have been a sure bet to take top spot at flanker, too.
Scrum-half – Gloucester
Scrum-half doesn’t tend to be a position where clubs bring through multiple quality players in a short space of time, although Gloucester have done well to stymie that assertion. Dan Robson achieved great things at Gloucester before going on to do likewise at Wasps, and that’s a pathway that Ben Vellacott will hope is similarly fruitful. Charlie Chapman, a former Scotland U20, is doing well and he has been joined by Stephen Varney, another of the club’s academy to play abroad, as he turns out for Italy U20s. Italy international Callum Braley came through Bristol’s academy, though Gloucester are due praise for his development post-moving to Kingsholm.
One side who could surpass Gloucester in the coming years is Exeter, with the side from the south-west of England currently boasting Stu Townsend, Jack Maunder and Sam Maunder as products of their academy, whilst Tom Cairns, their starting U18 this season, is also gifted. It’s a largely unproven group at this point in time, but it does not lack for potential.
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Fly-half – Leinster
Similar to scrum-half, it can be challenging for clubs to bring through multiple players at fly-half in a relatively short space of time. That said, even with incumbent Jonny Sexton in place, Leinster have managed to develop Joey Carbery, Ross Byrne and Harry Byrne, as well as the versatile Ciarán Frawley. No one else can quite match that quantity of productivity across the two competitions, though Saracens, if Max Malins is considered a fly-half and not a full-back, would be a valid option, as Malins would join Owen Farrell and current England U20 Manu Vunipola.
Centre – Sale Sharks
Sale might have lost a couple of these players to rival clubs, but that doesn’t diminish the productivity of their pathway in the midfield. Both Sam James and Luke James have been integral to the club’s march up the Premiership table, providing playmaking and distribution around Sale’s power and speed options. Will Addison was a consistent performer at outside centre before moving to Ulster in order to represent Ireland and Cam Redpath, who made a mid-season move to Bath, is a phenomenal prospect who could soon be donning an England jersey at the senior level. Young stars such as Tom Curtis and Tom Roebuck could yet find their way into midfield roles, too.
A team to keep an eye on as a potential rival to Sale in the coming seasons is the Ospreys. They’ve bolstered their senior squad with players from other regions recently, though the trio of Owen Watkin, Kieran Williams and Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler could be a special one over the next few seasons.
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Wing – London Irish
Ulster’s band of young wings deserves a mention, with Jacob Stockdale spearheading a quintet of Robert Baloucoune, Angus Kernohan, Rob Lyttle and Aaron Sexton, as does a Scarlets group that boasts Josh Adams, Steff Evans, Ryan Conbeer and Liam Williams, if the latter is considered as a wing and not purely as a full-back.
As far as wing options go, though, you’d struggle to find a better production line than London Irish. Not only have they brought through British and Irish Lion Anthony Watson, they also developed his Bath teammate Joe Cokanasiga. Both players are international calibre and even talented centre Jonathan Joseph spent some time on the wing at Irish when he was coming through. Their next generation of talent is led by Ben Loader, whilst Ollie Hassell-Collins made the headlines this season when he scored four tries against Gloucester in February.
Full-back – Leinster
There are some interesting contenders at full-back but you’d struggle to find a better group than the one produced by Leinster, and that’s without including Rob Kearney, who misses out on this time frame. Leinster have developed Jordan Larmour, Cian Kelleher and Jack Kelly, the latter of whom impresses for the Ireland 7s side now alongside another Leinster academy product, Billy Dardis. The previously mentioned duo of Carbery and Frawley can also be discussed at this position, which is enough to give the province a vice-like grip on this spot and see off the challenges of Northampton Saints and Saracens.
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