It sounds counterintuitive but England’s finishing position in this year’s Six Nations is almost the least of the Rugby Football Union’s current concerns. There is the Covid-19 financial pain, of course, and surging up on the rails is a proposal to bolt the Premiership’s relegation trapdoor for the next four years. Decisions made in the coming months will define English rugby for a generation or more.
Many of the issues are interlinked and fundamental to the game’s future. Where does a budding young professional player learn his trade if an underfunded Championship ceases to be a useful developmental environment? Or if a Premiership A league programme is no longer viable? What about late developers at university or college outside the academy system, presently holed up without any organised team sport and in danger of being lost to the game entirely?
Heap on top of all that the mothballing of schools rugby, the cancellation of a second consecutive Under-20 World Cup, the absence of any clear sevens pathway and the increasing awareness of brain injury risks and you have a perfect storm, not least in England where the RFU’s development pathway, as highlighted in the Guardian last May, was under scrutiny even before lockdown life took hold.
Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s director of performance rugby, is all too familiar with past accusations of English rugby failing to maximise its resources and prioritising youthful strength over skill . England’s former age-group head coach John Fletcher suggested last year that “nationally we lost our way” and O’Shea, after just over a year in post, concedes a shortage of dedicated talent-rearing coaches had become a problem.
“I’m not going to look back on the history of the last few years because I wasn’t here,” stresses O’Shea. “But when I came in I said: ‘What we’ve lost is connection’. We’d brought in coaches from Premiership clubs to coach age-group sides but they couldn’t give much feedback to the players or visit them at other clubs. There was no loop. It was: ‘You’re here this week, we’ll see you again in three weeks’ time.’”
The irony, of course, is that the Covid shutdown means there is now no school or college rugby to watch. The next wave of English teenage talent – or at least a fortunate few – have instead been restricted to four weekends of in-house trials at St George’s Park. On the plus side a small army of former players – Alan Dickens, Andy Titterrell, Mark Mapletoft, John Pendlebury and Don Barrell – are all now involved with Nigel Redman, the former England lock previously with British Swimming, also back to help develop the coaches.
This change of emphasis is wholly deliberate. While O’Shea drew up a list of “23 things we wanted to bring in”, his number one priority was always pathway coaching. “I don’t like the idea of doing 10 things averagely, I prefer to do two or three things well. Rather than spreading ourselves too thin, let’s get our pathway coaching absolutely on the money. Get that right and you can layer on other stuff. I’m very comfortable with the building blocks we’ve put in place, even in a really difficult year.
“People think there’s a magic formula but rugby will always be a simple game. People make a difference to people. I could take you back to the exact seat at Bath University where, during my first stint at the RFU, I sat down with Andy Farrell to talk about his son Owen. I can remember making Joe Marler captain of an under-18s side and him looking at me weirdly. You never lose that connection with those players.”
Identifying and nurturing such X factor players – male and female – is ultimately what it is all about, whether it be with half an eye on the 2023 Rugby World Cup or a decade hence. “Our job is to identify great players. Not stocking fillers, players who can make a difference at the very highest level.” Has he seen any lately? “Oh yeah, absolutely. We’ve a couple of young forwards who helped beat France Under-20s a year ago who I hadn’t seen again until recently.
I was like: ‘Oh my holy goodness, look at them.’ They’re completely different animals. In rugby you need to identify the gems but also to realise that people mature at different rates.”
Praise be, there are also plans afoot to do more to harness university-based talent and fresh recognition that training field hours alone – “Having something outside rugby doesn’t make you any less professional” – do not develop fully rounded rugby players.
O’Shea would also be in favour of reviving A international fixtures to prepare Test wannabes for the next level. “I absolutely would be. It comes back to the season structure but it’s something we have to look into if we can. You could be a brilliant club player but it’s about learning how to play out of your comfort zone in a different environment. Some people shrink, others go from poor to brilliant.”
Assuming, of course, that the locked-down thousands of school, club and age-group players have not been permanently scarred.
“That’s the biggest challenge,” acknowledges O’Shea. “I look at it even with my kids. Young people have been taken out of sport for a long time. We’re fine for the moment but you wouldn’t want it to continue for year after year.”
Never mind the Six Nations: re-engaging rugby’s “lost” youth should be every administrator’s top priority.