The coronavirus outbreak has wreaked havoc with sport all over the world and although it is a freak situation that no one could have expected or planned for, it has exacerbated the problems already encountered by young talent in Premiership Rugby and the English game.
English rugby sits on an enviable player pool of schoolboy talent, one that is arguably only surpassed by South Africa in terms of a combination of quality and quantity. Some clubs have delved into this pool very successfully. Others have gone down a different route, heavily recruiting from rival domestic clubs or from abroad in order to build their squad.
Every shareholder in Premiership Rugby – plus Yorkshire Carnegie – are given exclusive recruiting grounds and provided with funds from the RFU to run an academy. A lot of very good work goes on in these pathways and players are pushed forward and developed. The contracting decision, which occurs around February or March of a player’s final year at school, is a big moment for player and club alike.
Players are either left dejected or elated in the run-up to their exams, a significant issue in itself, but it is the next step in the pathway for them that we are focused on here. A senior academy intake can vary from just one or two in a particularly sparse year, to as many as twelve or 13 in a year overflowing with talent and players coming to the end of their school commitments. This puts players who have successfully earned a professional contract on one of a few pathways.
There are the players who are ready for the life of a professional rugby player and all that entails. They avoid major injuries, are physically and technically talented enough to make an immediate or short-term impact at the senior level, and are mentally ready to cope with the stresses and rigours of being a professional athlete. English rugby has no problems advancing these high-end talents straight out of school, and that has been evidenced by the rise of the Curry twins, Zach Mercer, Marcus Smith and Nick Isiekwe – to name but a few – in recent years.
Then you have the group of players who might be ready for professional rugby or those whose clubs will have to be a bit more patient with, but all of whom opt to continue their academic studies while also playing professional rugby. Unfortunately, this is a relatively small group, with most who sign pro contracts opting to exclusively focus on rugby, whether that is through their own choice or based on the recommendation of their club.
Lastly, we come to a large and seemingly growing group, the players who are chewed up and spat out of professional rugby. These are players who maybe spend one, two or even three years in a senior academy as a professional player, they have no university education, apprenticeship or other post-school qualifications and then they are released with very little rugby under their belts and slim to no chance of securing a professional contract elsewhere.
It is not just coronavirus that has brought a surge in these cases, the outbreak has simply highlighted what the surge in player wage expectations in recent years has begun to cause. Many of these players are used for training ground cannon fodder, with their pathway to meaningful contribution to the senior side blocked by extensive senior recruitment. They are sold a dream of professional rugby but discarded swiftly and often mercilessly.
There is always fresh talent to call upon from the junior academy and clubs can afford to churn this talent over with little negative comeback for themselves, as swelling the squad with these affordable options allows them to aggressively pursue high-end players from abroad and contract players on salaries that are unsustainable in the modern game.
That is not to say that all clubs act in this way. There are examples of Premiership clubs who actively push forward those players not initially ready for the rigours and demands of senior rugby, focusing on their development, being proactive with loan rugby and creating pathways for them to succeed. Hate or love them, Saracens are very good in this regard, as are Northampton Saints. They are perhaps the best two examples in the Premiership currently.
They put a strong emphasis on player development post-18, rather than just match preparation. They have comprehensive and multi-faceted coaching staffs to get the best out of players at all positions. They are proactive in getting players out on loan and playing competitive rugby. Competition on the pathway to the first XV is fierce due to the strength of their respective senior squads, although it is a pathway the players involved in believe in and are confident of traversing if they work hard enough.
The abundance of players cut within one or two years of signing their first professional contracts across the league is, however, a damning indictment of the structure in general. These players are then left adrift at 19, 20 or 21, holding on to the dream of playing professional rugby, but with little to no opportunity. For many, the idea of going to university to play rugby and secure an academic qualification while also pushing their rugby forward is wrongly considered a backwards step as they already have experience of being a professional.
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At least for the players who weren’t initially contracted, they will have been able to start building up their rugby experience in a different environment and get themselves one, two or even three years into a degree or post-school qualification or trade.
There should be an onus on Premiership clubs when making those decisions to either provide an academic back-up for players or to be surer that they have the pathway in place for this player to develop and forge a career for themselves. No one can get every contracting decision at 18 right and there will always be unfortunate scenarios where players are turned away early, but the growth in which we are seeing that happen currently is worrying. English rugby has become top-heavy at the highest level and it is the players at the bottom, without the finances, experience or qualifications needed to excel in other fields, who are now bearing the brunt of that.
Coupled with the funding cuts imposed by the RFU on the Greene King IPA Championship, suggested by some as a way for PRL to financially ringfence rather than facing the PR backlash for officially ringfencing, there are even fewer opportunities for these players to land at the next level down from the Premiership. They have been sold a dream and denied a real shot at achieving it.
There has been a lot of talk of rugby realigning and resetting in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, something which was further emphasised by the recent election for World Rugby chairman. Although that centred around tournaments, seasons and professional structures, there is still plenty to be done for the players, without whom we would not have a game to watch.
When the Premiership does eventually return, whether that is to finish the current season or to begin the 2020/21 campaign, the financial hits being endured because of the coronavirus outbreak are hopefully enough to make clubs realise there is more value to their senior academy players than being an affordable Premiership Shield player who is exempt from the salary cap.
Whether you hold traditional ‘rugby values’ in the highest esteem or you believe them a mantra for the dinosaurs, it cannot sit well that these players, who pass up education and opportunity outside of rugby, are discarded with such ease, all in order to add an extra £20k or £30k to the salary of a player who will already be earning 20, 30 or even 40 times as much as these youngsters.
Tough decisions will always have to be made in regard to contracting, but if you ask a player at 18 years of age to put their life on hold and be a professional rugby player, at least see that investment through. Do not pull the rug out from underneath them after a year or two.
When rugby returns, these players must be given a chance to show their worth. Hopefully, academy managers and directors of rugby can look beyond squad size and make the correct calls for the players on whether or not handing them a professional contract immediately after school is the right thing to do. If they do invest in a player that is not immediately ready for senior rugby, it would be encouraging if they show the necessary patience and create a pathway for them that works.
Hope, while in high demand right now, is sadly not always something that comes to fruition in professional rugby.
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