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Wellington Festival offers promise


RFU's annual youth festival delights and frustrates in equal measure

Every year, the best and the brightest U16 players in England are brought together at Wellington College for a week-long festival of rugby, coaching and education.

All 14 regional academies under the Premiership Rugby Limited umbrella convene on leafy Berkshire to attend the RFU-run event, in order to both develop the players at their disposal, as well as helping set a number of the youngsters on paths to becoming professional rugby players in two- or three-years’ time.

There are two game days where the academies all play off against one another, but beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, the Wellington Festival provides education on nutrition, psychology and different coaching techniques, all the whilst promoting integration and socialising between the different squads.

As preparation for the final two years of their school rugby careers go, in which many of the attendees will be targeting professional contracts, it is an extremely beneficial and enjoyable experience.

Of course, not everyone who attends the Festival will go on to feature for their affiliated academy at U18 level. There is a drop-out rate, but the Festival at least provides them with a memorable farewell with their teammates and potentially paves the way for them to link up with another team, perhaps at a slightly lower level, and play their way back up into that elite pathway further down the road.

The 2019 edition of the Festival got underway on Saturday, before the first of its two game days on Sunday. There was no lack of talent on show and to the casual observer, it would look as though the future of English rugby is particularly bright.

The range of skills and ability on show is truly exciting. One openside played with a line-speed and proclivity over the ball that should have him starring in the U18s next season and there was a multitude of decision-making and ambitious scrum-halves and fly-halves. Back rowers were showing adept kicking skills and there was a glut of tightheads who, whilst obviously fairly unpolished at this point, look as if they have won the genetic lottery. Second rows offloading and stepping in at first receiver, centres that looked like back rowers on fast-forward and full-backs with great variety in their games.

You can go from team to team and pick out multiple players that, with the right physical and technical development over the next two years, should be capable of picking up professional contracts with their Gallagher Premiership clubs. Year on year, the quality seems to get higher at the Festival and the development of players from this level to the U18s is notable and reflects well on both their schools and the academy coaching staffs.

With that, however, comes the negative of the Festival and it’s actually nothing to do with the week-long event.

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Premiership clubs, for a number of seasons now, have been locked in an arms race with their financially better off rivals from France. With the marquee spots in a Premiership roster, English clubs are able to compete for individual players with sides from the Top 14, but with their lower salary cap, they are less able to deal with the rising salary expectations that those marquee spots bring throughout the entire team.

For the second year in a row, all Premiership clubs apart from Exeter Chiefs made a financial loss. For some clubs, those losses can be underwritten or are part of an ongoing process towards sustainability, but for others it signals worrying times. Yet, they continue to recruit heavily from abroad, paying the salary premiums that signing, rather than developing talent, brings with it.

The recruitment is also often targeted at established Tier 1 players who do not come cheaply, having already made their names in Super Rugby or the Guinness PRO14. They tend to eschew the approach that the Scottish clubs have shown in targeting unheralded Fijian and South African players with plenty of promise, or the Irish approach of just sprinkling an array of foreign talent around the core of their squads that have been developed at home.

The financial situation that this approach has imposed on the clubs is not likely to get better anytime soon, either, with CVC’s 27% stake in the Premiership almost certainly going to eat up any short-term increases in revenue. The wisdom of the deal won’t be decided until much further down the road, when we will see if CVC are able to increase the commercial appeal of the competition beyond the cut that they will now take, and the clubs become better off as a result.

With all of this in mind, it brings us back to the negative side of the Wellington Festival and that’s the amount of talent that is going to go wasted from this group of young athletes.

English rugby is sitting on a player pool of talent, thanks to the school system, academy staffs and RFU pathways, that is arguably unrivalled in world rugby. In terms of quantity, it far exceeds that on offer in New Zealand, and the quality is not far off, either. The closing of that gap with New Zealand over the last 10 years has been impressive and from a skill level perspective, the gap only looks like it will further diminish.

If you take the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises, they are capable of losing handfuls of players every year to lucrative contracts in Europe and Japan, yet they are able to restock and go again the next season, barely missing a step as they do. It’s that jump from juniors to seniors where New Zealand steals a march on England, particularly in terms of opportunities for players just outside the elite prospects.

Why, therefore, is there not more of a premium put on developing your own talent in England?

It should be pointed out that this isn’t a weakness of English rugby. A number of the Premiership clubs are built around cores of homegrown players that have come through from their own junior academy, whilst the quotas of English-qualified players required by the RFU are usually all met.

There is a bountiful crop of players pushing for international selection year after year, too, but that should not be surprising or necessarily even a reason to celebrate. Given the resources and player pool England has as a country, being able to develop enough players to push for and compete for one national team is the absolute bare minimum. It should also be able to sustain 12 professional teams.

No one is saying don’t recruit players from abroad, but when you’re losing money year after year, paying out big to bring in a ‘name’ who might depart after a couple of seasons and then letting talented players walk at 18, you’ve got to question the logic of it.

Each individual club operates in their own way and there is no blanket generalisation you can adhere to them all, just as each individual player coming out of a junior academy at 18 is a unique situation, but this recruit-heavy approach is financially unsustainable, not delivering competitive sides in European competition and further driving rising salary expectations.

The threat of relegation will always be used as the counter argument to this. The clubs will say how can we take the risk on of filling our squads with younger players who have come through the academy system, when that lack of experience or ability of a 28-year-old from Super Rugby, could cost us our place in the Premiership?

It’s a fair comment and probably something which could only be changed by the Premiership itself, by insisting on regulations that require each squad to carry a certain percentage of players that have come through the academy pathway. This will create the opportunities they need, because outside of the improving BUCS Super Rugby competition and the even more financially unsustainable Greene King IPA Championship, those opportunities are sorely lacking.

A number of clubs this year have let players in the £50k to £120k bracket leave if they aren’t first XV regulars in order to contract the higher earners in their squads, and there needs to be some sort of action to at least arrest the rise in wages. The French flexing their financial muscles started it and the marquee spots and BT Sport broadcast deal have since exacerbated it, but if they rise much more, no one apart from the French are going to be able to live with it.

You would expect, with these increases in salary expectation at the highest level that also trickle down to squad players, that senior academy contracts would be on the up around the Premiership, with clubs eyeing those youngsters as affordable depth options, but early indications are that the numbers aren’t increasing in line with that. There will be several smaller intakes this season when the clubs announce them in the next few weeks or months.

And again, that brings us back to the Wellington Festival.

Player development has seemingly never been better in this country and for all of the excitement and promise that the Festival offers, you get the same melancholic feeling that, in two years’ time, these players will be facing the same difficulty in winning a professional contract that the current U18s are.

As the recent sanctions around high tackles have attempted to change long-term behaviour in order to provide better outcomes, in which early results are proving promising, it seems sadly as if the positive behavioural change in the pathways is not yet having the correlated effect across the board on off field outcomes among Premiership clubs.

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RFU's annual youth festival delights and frustrates in equal measure