'We've been quite ruthless': The science behind the hectic Worcester recruitment drive amid huge exodus of 20 players
It’s a good thing that ex-Wales international Jonathan Thomas has got a bit of charisma about how he presents himself and an ambitious, well-articulated vision of a brighter future at Worcester, otherwise life would currently be hell 17 weeks into his first-ever job as a head coach.
Twelve defeats have been the 38-year-old’s lot since he stepped up to the plate having initially joined the club last summer as forwards coach (the only W is from a February game cancelled due to Covid). Some reverses have been agonisingly close. The one-point loss to Gallagher Premiership leaders Bristol, a four-point gap versus champions Exeter and just three points separated them from semi-final chasing Sale.
But other setbacks have laid bare the cavernous scale of the mammoth task Thomas has taken on. You can perhaps excuse 24- and 25-point losses as merely bad days at the office, or even this weekend’s second-half fade-out at Chiefs where a 10-8 interval lead became a 10-41 surrender. But there can be no hiding place when your team ships 62 points and gets hammered at home by an embarrassing 48 points – as the Warriors did against Northampton on March 27.
In any other year, it would be panic stations for the ‘Worriers’. Saturday’s latest loss has them firmly anchored to the bottom, 14 points adrift of next-best Newcastle with just four matches remaining this season. However, the pandemic moratorium on relegation means there are no sleepless nights, only industrial style planning to lay the foundation they hope can finally break a legacy of non-achievement.
Worcester’s 15-season Premiership history is perpetual lower-end suffering. There have been two twelfth place relegations, with another on the way this year that is crucially minus the drop, five eleventh place finishes, four tenth places, two ninth places and just the single eighth place, their highest ever in 2005/06.
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Equalling Thomas Waldrom's record for the most in one campaign by a forward! ? pic.twitter.com/2ATQ7iwMwH
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In all that time there have been just 93 wins from 326 outings. It’s a mere 28.5 per cent win ratio, a figure that bleakly illustrates the size of the task embraced by Thomas, the 67-cap ex-Welsh back-rower, who finished out his club career by playing two seasons for Worcester after exiting the Ospreys, the relegation campaign of 2013/14 followed by the successful next year in the Championship.
Those second-tier smiles are a world away, though, from upward mobility in the Premiership, but a grandiose plan has been hatched to shake things up like never before at Sixways and a revolving door is in full swing to try and ensure these improved results materialise in the years ahead.
It was in the wake of the March hammering by the Saints that Thomas – who gave up the cushion of a two-year assistant’s contract extension at Bristol to instead pitch up Worcester ten months ago – gave a fleeting glimpse of the immense level juggling that is going on.
“There are 20 players leaving the club at the end of the season, so there is a lot going on behind the scenes,” he said six weeks ago and Thomas has now given RugbyPass a proper insight into his thinking behind all the Worcester comings and goings, a heavy influx and exodus that would leave the head of a lesser organised coach spinning with the gigantic rate of change.
The upside of having so many players going off-contract is that Thomas doesn’t have to hang around making do with the squad he inherited from Alan Solomons, the director of rugby who left the coaching to the Welshman in early January.
Worcester next season will be very much a team moulded by Thomas, but what actually is the science of the recruitment drive he has embarked on, a flurry of high-end signings (internationals Duhan van der Merwe, Chris Ashton, Willi Heinz, Scott Baldwin, Owen Williams and Sione Vailanu) married with a plethora of mid-tier names (the likes of Christian Judge, Will Chudley, Jack Owlett, Kyle Hatherell and Harri Doel)?
“It has been a challenging process because of the salary cap being reduced and because I have come into a position (as head coach) halfway through the season in January,” he said to RugbyPass. “But it is all about your process and I have worked closely with Solly [Solomons] on that – what is our identity, what identity do we want in two, three years’ time when we want to be the team we want to be?
“What does that look like in terms of style of play, and then once you work out what your vision and your identity are you can then go right, who are the people and the players that we need to recruit to fulfil that vision that we want?
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“We have been quite ruthless in the process. It’s never ideal to have that volume of players off-contract at one time and leaving, 20 players or whatever it is, so that has certainly been really tough, some tough conversations especially when I have got a huge amount of respect and care a lot about the players that are leaving… but we have done really well.
“We have got a couple more players that we would like to bring in but when you look at the whole thing we are pretty pleased with recruitment, with what we have got coming in next year. I’m really excited about the squad we will have. It will be a smaller squad than this year but we don’t mind going with a smaller squad because we have got some good, young homegrown players coming through.
“Part of our vision is to bring through our academy players so if you want to be true to that vision, if you get opportunities to play them you have to have the balls to play them. Having a smaller squad, probably having quality over quantity, is what suits us with where we are at as a squad at the moment.”
But what about the mechanics in Worcester chasing a particular player, who does the heavy lifting with Thomas? “Solly and I work closely together on that. I’m in charge of the rugby programme so myself, together with the other coaches and Solly, will identify what is our identity and who do we want to recruit to that identity.
“The relationships didn’t connect as much… sometimes personalities don’t match, faces didn’t fit"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 26, 2021
“We would earmark certain players that we would want to bring in and in terms of who deals with the negotiations, that would be Solly. Solly does the dealings with the agents because my position as head coach is to focus on the performance of the team and the coaching Monday to Saturday, but we will go through that process. Myself and Solly will sit down and we will say right these are the players we want to target and then Solly goes and does the negotiations as the DoR.”
What is the Worcester identity, though, and what is the common denominator in the signings they have secured? “First and foremost we play on a 4G. You have to be cognizant of the fact that every team that plays on a 4G goes wow that was a fast game so you have to recruit players that are fast, who have the ability to play a fast game.
“There is no point bringing in players that can’t because then you are not being true to your identity. We are a team that if we play on a 4G we want to have the ability to play a fast game, we want to be a team that takes the space a defence gives us.
“What does that mean? If we need to attack and need to go through phase play then we can do that, we need a good kicking game and we need to have connected width on our attack on both sides, a two-sided attack so it gives us the ability to get the ball to edges.
The changes at Sixways continue under Jonathan Thomas https://t.co/q8LEkwA0rW
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 27, 2021
“We want to develop our whole game over the next few years but also, first and foremost, I’m a forwards coach and I want to have a powerful forward pack and that is something that is part of our evolution. The reality is you look at La Rochelle last weekend, you look at Leicester, there are some monster packs out there at the moment and the Prem has always been a little like that.
“So we need to have powerful men who reproduce big efforts. Part of that is your recruitment and your genetics, but also part of that is how you condition them so that is the appointment of David Drake (as head of performance and head of strength and conditioning).
“We need to be able to play any style of game in any weather conditions on any given day with any give referee on any given surface so we need to be able to adapt, we need to be able to play fast, to have a good skill set, to be able to play any type of game, but we need to be big, to have big powerful men who can repeat effort as well. That summarises where we want to go but that takes time. We are right at the start of the journey in terms of that recruitment process so we are excited with what we have for next year.”
The international standard of some of the signings illustrates how the Warriors are no mugs at the moment in the recruitment market, their financial savvy and ambition to become a top-end Premiership club piquing the interest of X-factor talents whose arrival at Worcester under Thomas has made rival clubs sit up and take notice how they mean business next term.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 7, 2021
“It’s really important,” said Thomas about the Warriors bagging some big names. “I guess you can put players into two categories – you have got the soldiers and you have got the artists and you certainly don’t underestimate how important the soldiers are, the guys who pitch up every week, great mindset, really good work ethic, go hard, really physical, do a lot of the unseen work, really important.
“They are going to be the majority of your squad so it is really important with those guys that you have a really good balance there. They don’t always have to be X-factor. That can sometimes be players that aren’t born with natural talent but they certainly are world-class at things that don’t require talent.
“But then the reality is you need your artists who can light up games, who can put bums on seats, who can win you games in the moments that matter. The number of games I played with Shane Williams, I wouldn’t like to think the number of games I played with Shane but it is really handy when you are a forward and you’re getting out of the bottom of a ruck and you can see Shane going 40 metres and scoring the winning try of the game.
“That is pretty useful and the number of times that he did that for Ospreys and Wales was ridiculous, so you need those players, the van der Merwe, the Melani Nanai, the Ollie Lawrence. You need those players in your team. The balance is important between the soldiers and the artists and we think we have got a pretty good balance next year.”
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