The Welsh Rugby Union has admitted that it has not done enough to support the age rating program in recent times and explained what is being done to rectify that.
In recent months, fears have surfaced that the country has not produced enough talent to take over from a golden generation of top-flight players nearing the final blows of their Test careers. Compounding the concerns is the fact that the Under-20 side have not enjoyed any notable success since a talented crop broke into the Six Nations in 2016.
Among a plethora of issues currently facing the game in Wales, the development path, which produces the talent to keep the professional game alive, is perhaps one of the most pressing. The pandemic has significantly impacted talented young rugby players as games were held on ice while elite play slowly restarted. It was feared that the growth of some had been stunted, which would compound the problems.
Things came to a head during the Six Nations when Welsh rugby legend Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies accused the WRU of ‘failing the youngsters who come forward’. and said there had been a “lack of leadership” in a live television tirade.
With the game in Wales seemingly at a crossroads amid attempts to align the game at professional and semi-pro levels, now is the time to find the perfect system to ensure teenage prospects reach their potential.
This is something that has been passionately discussed by WRU performance director Nigel Walker, who was appointed last July.
He was told that “things weren’t going well” at the age level and that players were spending “too much time in academies and not enough time playing”. Walker bristled at the suggestion, responding, “If I may be so bold, that’s a bit of a vague characterization of where he’s at. Our under-20 season was disappointing, no one is going to say less.
“You have 36 players under the age of 20, what are you going to do with them now? Previously, not much is the answer. What we’re going to do now – and the Premiership can be part of this answer – is you take those 36 players, give them individual player plans and follow them for the next 12 to 24 months. They play the right amount of games at the right level and that’s how you develop people.
“If you leave it to chance, you will get bad results. I can’t tell the regions who they can’t touch, but I think with a little collaboration and sitting down and talking about it, we could get somewhere. In what we call the ‘Group Pipeline’, we meet several times, the managers of the academy are there and we are talking about what is required. We are developing a framework and I hope that all regions will follow it.”
He added: “Sorry I talk so passionately about this, but jumping to conclusions when you haven’t asked the right questions, talking about certain shows and everything else and saying ‘this is happening’ or ‘this isn’t happening’ when you haven’t. the correct question is lazy.
“Come and ask me, and I’ll tell you what’s going on. So if you want to disagree with that, I’m fine with that. But I know a lot about performance, I’m not a guru, but I know a lot. If people want to ask me what we’re doing, I’ll tell them what we’re doing.
“So if you want to say, ‘That’s garbage!’ Then I’ll ask why. Sorry I’m so passionate about it, but I’ve read a lot and couldn’t be further from the truth. I really get annoyed by people who should know better.”
When asked why the Under-20s have performed so poorly of late, Walker admitted, “Because we as a Union haven’t done enough with our Under-20s last year.”
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Walker, who played 17 times for Wales after competing as a hurdler at the 1984 Olympics, appears to have a plan that hits the right notes but relies on regions and the Union singing the same sheet music, which hasn’t always been the case. been so. been the case.
The 58-year-old was then asked how much control the WRU would have over a player’s development when he is in his region. WRU CEO Steve Phillips weighed in at this point, saying, “I would just get away from the control freak. It is not about that, it is about reaching a collective decision.
“I can stamp my feet and say, ‘We want to have this!’ But it’s not going to work unless we line up. It’s alignment rather than control.”
Walker continued: “I had breakfast several weeks ago with my counterpart in Ireland. We talked about the position in Ireland and the position in Wales. I said that their configuration and governance structure is slightly different. He said it’s not about a governance structure, it’s about everyone understanding what you’re trying to accomplish and everyone buying into that.
“If we passionately believe that the senior Welsh men’s team should be at a certain level, then we look at the contribution the regions need to make and then we look at what the national team will give back to the regions. If you come to terms with that, then it’s not that hard. We have to want the same things.”
It was then pointed out that the regions have their own ambitions which will involve challenging for league titles and European honours. Sometimes balancing your responsibility to develop players with the urgent need to win games now isn’t always easy.
Is it part of the strategic plan for the WRU to have a winning region in Europe, rather than simply being used as a vehicle to develop players for the national team?
“Absolutely,” agreed Walker. “But it is not beyond the ingenuity of man to devise a strategy that encompasses both.”
Quite often, conflict can occur when a player is part of the Wales under-20 team. Problems can arise when regional teams, already exhausted by test call-ups, look to use their young talent to round out squads for domestic matches, in turn weakening the Wales under-20 side. It’s a difficult balancing act, but Walker had a vision.
“Age rugby is very important and I don’t know of any individual where age rugby hasn’t been an important part of their development,” he said. “I would need a really compelling argument to change my mind.”
A key appointment was recently made with John Alder as the new Head of Player Development. Alder, who has held a number of performance track positions with organizations including UK Sport and the New Zealand Rugby League, worked with Walker during his time at the English Institute of Sport, although the latter insists this is not a case of “jobs”. for the boys.” ‘.
Alder will focus on players coming through the system between the ages of 16 and 20, with Walker adding: “He will work with the regions and the academies to develop that framework to make sure that if you have the potential to be a world leader, there is a good chance for you to become a world beater.”