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Turner: 'No shortcuts unearthing talent'

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Covert scouting, tit-for-tat raids and loopholes: the thorny world of Welsh talent ID

When Wayne Pivac announced his first Wales squad this week, a bevvy of fledgeling players were included. Taine Basham, Shane Lewis-Hughes are barely household names in their own backyards, let alone Wales, while Owen Lane, Jarrod Evans and Ashton Hewitt are some distance from being embedded into the public consciousness but are sure to become familiar to Welsh fans in the next World Cup cycle.

Indeed, it should be pointed out that with the Barbarians game sitting outside the Test window, only players based in Wales were considered. Yet there is another seam of Welsh talent that resides over the Severn Bridge and will be monitored as Wales look to the World Cup in 2023.

The term ‘Welsh qualified player’ has had loaded connotations in recent years but for all the nay-sayers, it can’t be denied that it has served Wales well. Take the recent World Cup semi-final starting XV. 

Packing down at tighthead was Tomas Francis. With a soft Yorkshire timbre, his Welshness wasn’t obviously apparent until his coach at Doncaster, Chris Davey, spotted Francis’ lack of an ‘h’ in his Christian name. Further investigations found a grandmother hailing from Abercrave and the 21st behemoth has become the anchor for the Welsh scrum.

Packing down behind him was Jake Ball. You won’t find a Welsh lilt enunciating his crisp vowels but a father hailing from Pwllheli has seen him thrive in a Welsh shirt, even though he grew up in Ascot.

(Continue reading below…)

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These days, there are idiosyncrasies that make-up any Test side. In that same Welsh team, their top-scorer, Josh Adams, had to cut his teeth at Worcester Warriors for five years after being overlooked by his home region, the Scarlets, before signing for the Cardiff Blues this summer. Had he not committed to Wales, he could theoretically have been secured for England, should he have wished to.

The residency rule, too, complicates the selection minefield. It will be extended from three to five years at the end of 2020 and had that been in place years earlier it would have barred Hadleigh Parkes from his physical exertions in Japan. 

It is a hugely emotive area and the naming this week of New Zealanders Willis Halaholo and Johnny McNicholl brought about mixed feelings from fans on their inclusion in the Wales squad. Once Gareth Anscombe is declared fit, Wales could feasibly select four Kiwis in their backline, a scenario that does not sit well with all followers of the game.

The WRU, for their part, know that with small players numbers, they have to join everyone else and box-clever when it comes to talent identification. For all the talk of cross-border raids in England, it isn’t solely one way. 

It’s well known that Martin Corry and Josh Lewsey’s mothers used to converse in Welsh before England internationals and is far from surprising when you consider Cardiff, Newport, Bristol, Bath and Gloucester sit in such close proximity either side of the border. Tit-for-tat goes with the territory.

Aiding and abetting Wales in this needle in a haystack process is Paul Turner, the former Wales out-half. Turner, 59, would be the first to admit he’s been around the block. In his storied career, he has been player-coach of Sale and Bedford and coached at Gloucester, Harlequins, Wasps and the Dragons. He is now the head coach of Championship side Ampthill.

Faletau

Wales back row Taulupe Faletau was spotted early by Paul Turner (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The coach who secured Taulupe Faletau’s signature when his cousins Billy and Mako Vunipola left Pontypool to go onto fame and fortune with England, for instance, knew all about Jonah Holmes before Welsh fans rifled him up the Google search rankings last October. 

He could afford a wry smile having identified him in 2011 while coaching at Wasps and latterly watched him overlooked by Welsh regions under firm salary budgetary constraints. 

Even though they have a potential cash windfall of £35million from CVC in the pipeline, in the current climate you would be mightily surprised if they unveiled players of the ilk of World Cup winners Lood de Jager (Sale Sharks) or Damien de Allende (potentially Munster) just yet.

Turner says talent ID isn’t an exact science but being well-connected and well-informed is advantageous. In his part-time role for four years, Turner says he’s yet to chat to the in-demand Pivac but is illuminating on the intricacies of talent identification. 

“As far as I’m concerned, my role is I can get them to the 22. I find them, take a call and relay the information but it’s up to the region to see whether they can factor them into the squad. 

“They have to decide whether they can afford him or if he is as good as I say he is. I have no influence after that. I have been in England for quite a while, having taught in many schools and coached, so my knowledge of rugby over here is pretty extensive. I’m a go-between really.”

Paul Turner in his Wasps days (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Turner knows that with coveted scholarships available over the border, it’s no surprise that Welsh qualified players find themselves ensconced in the English system with choices to make and he spends much of his time watching as much rugby as possible. 

“I was down at Hartpury last week and at London Irish this week watching the talent in the AASE Championship. There is no short-cut to unearthing talent.”

While a rapacious media will always be looking for the next big thing, Turner says it’s as rare a hen’s teeth that talent scouts will be in the dark. “Sometimes names are thrown out there, but it is virtually unheard of that we don’t know about it. Equally, it would be foolish to go around shouting names about.”

With the eligibility regulations routinely tweaked, Turner says the battle to secure the best talent for Wales is nothing new. “It used to be that the best players would go over the border to St Luke’s, Loughborough and Newcastle University but these days it is closer to home, like Hartpury and Exeter. Alex Cuthbert came from Hartpury and so did Ross Moriarty, who represented England at age-grade level. He has gone on to win 41 caps for Wales. It’s a case of, ‘you win some, you lose some’.”

With rugby competitions taking place up and down the country, Turner says everybody involved accepts it is a game. “Habitually, I’ll go to the Wellington Festival at under-15s or under-18 level with a list of kids that I’m watching. 

“They will have already been registered since 12 or 13, so you get there, talk to all the English lads who see us with knowing looks as if to say, ‘we know why you’re here’. It’s exactly the same for the Irish and Scottish scouts. It’s like a scene out of a Mike Bassett movie.”

There is no precise formula for spotting talent in Turner’s eyes, sometimes just a gut feeling. “When I go and watch rugby these days, I see if the player has rich potential and only then do I see if they are Welsh qualified. Often teachers don’t often know if their parents or grandparents are Welsh, so you have to do the investigative work.”

A lot of the information-sharing is covert. Word of mouth, a few phone calls, WhatsApp messages and a robust, trusting network. “Nobody knew about All Black Shannon Frizell’s Welsh qualification. I got onto that one but we lost him. Tyson, his brother, is still available but he plays league and he is getting paid well to do it.”

With a distinguished playing career behind him, Turner is routinely seeing the progeny of his former team-mates sprouting up. “I usually know somebody’s uncle or dad, which helps. Do you remember the Cardiff full-back Paul Rees? Well, his sister is Louis Rees-Zammit’s mother, who is now at Gloucester. 

I know Callum Sheedy through his uncle, Mikey Boyce, who was a fly-half with me at Newport and saw him playing for Cinderford against Ampthill five years ago. We all knew of his Irish, Welsh and English roots, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does.”

With England and Wales sharing a border, that invisible line separating two countries with a fierce 138-year sporting rivalry was always going to be ripe for the odd tug-of-war. For all the Jake Balls, there are players who escape Wales’ clutches for a plethora of reasons. “We were chasing James Lang but he went up to Scotland from Harlequins. Max Clark from Bath and Johnny Williams up at Newcastle are others who are Welsh qualified but chose not to move west. 

“There are often reasons why they don’t come to Wales earlier. Perhaps they come back on the radar later because they haven’t got to play for who they want to play for. You can only assume most of them who haven’t sworn an allegiance are aiming for England, which is their call.”

One factor that plays into Wales’ hands is the ‘capture rule’ that Steve Shingler fell foul of a few years ago when attempting to play for Scotland after it was decided that the Wales A side would capture the players and not the under-20s, but no games have taken place. 

Turner says loopholes are more and more difficult to exploit. “Understandably, the RFU have decided to keep a closer eye on their academies. England has more land, more towns, more chimney stacks and more players. In fairness, the English academies don’t get a lot wrong these days. The RFU have noticed this movement and they are probably thinking, ‘why are we pouring all this money into the academies if the Welsh, Scottish and Irish scouts are just picking the players off?’”

When it comes to country allegiances, it’s clear it works both ways. Every union is dancing to World Rugby’s latest regulations and the pawns in the middle are the players who have a dizzying array of choices for what can be a short-lived career. For all the bobbing and weaving around rugby’s law book, the protagonists ultimately only want what is best for the next generation, albeit in the colours of their home nation.

Rugby Pass’ next generation… over the Bridge

Sam Costelow (fly-half, Leicester Tigers)

Similar in playing style to Welsh qualified Callum Sheedy, who is keeping Ian Madigan out of the Bristol No10 shirt, the highly-rated fly-half played for Wales at under-18 and under-20 level and is on the books with Leicester, playing in the Premiership Cup this season after fracturing his jaw at the Junior World Championships.

Ioan Lloyd, 18 (fly-half, Bristol Bears)

The young fly-half has been a break-out success with Bristol Bears this season, scoring four tries in five games and his nimble-footed displays have caused eyebrows to be raised. His father Byron is from Blackwood and used to run the Eden Park shop in Cardiff with former Dragons coach Dai Rees. Schooled at Clifton College, it is thought that he will run out in red – not white – in the future.

Ioan Lloyd scores

Ioan Lloyd scores for Bristol in their November Premiership win over Sale (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Louis Rees-Zamitt, 18 (wing, Gloucester)

A fleet-footed, powerful wing who scored a scintillating YouTube-friendly 80-metre try against Bristol Bears A last year, Rees-Zamitt has signed a long-term deal with Gloucester but after starring for the Wales under-18s, he is said to be favouring sticking with Wales after growing up in Cardiff.

Sam Moore, 21, (No8, Sale Sharks)

Born in Cardiff and the son of former Wales international Steve and uncle Andy, Moore Jnr left Wales at the age of three where he was schooled in England and went to Sedburgh school on a scholarship. He has since signed a contract with Sale Sharks. The back row has represented England at every age-grade level but is yet to play for the Saxons, so can still play for either Wales or England.

Tommy Reffell, 20 (flanker, Leicester Tigers)

Son of the former Maesteg back row Gary, the Wales under-20 back row is very highly regarded in Welsh rugby circles. A natural openside with an eye for turnovers, big hits and a will-to-win, Reffell went to Pencoed School, following in the footsteps of Scott Gibbs, Gavin Henson and Gareth Cooper. His senior back row partner Guy Thompson rates Reffell highly, backing him as “the future for Wales”.

WATCH: The first episode of The Academy, the RugbyPass documentary series on Leicester Tigers which features Sam Costelow and Tommy Reffell

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Covert scouting, tit-for-tat raids and loopholes: the thorny world of Welsh talent ID