With the season in full swing, Cardiff Rugby academy manager Gruff Rees has provided us with a full update of the club's pathway system.
GR: Despite the many challenges we’ve faced as a club throughout the 2021/22 season, as an academy and pathway department it’s been imperative that we keep our eye on the ball when it comes to the various stages of development within the Cardiff Rugby system.
It’s a fast-moving landscape but we’re delighted to have good rugby people on board who do their very best to service the various needs of each individual and groups on a case-by-base basis.
Under-18 - Men
Last Wednesday saw the under-18’s Championship campaign drawing to a close in pretty dramatic fashion, with Dragons claiming silverware in the final moments of the final game. First of all, huge congratulations to Sam Hobbs, Shaun Connor and everyone at Dragons on an excellent campaign.
The finale, despite the tricky weather conditions up in Ystrad Mynach, was befitting of a winner-takes-all decider with both teams showcasing excellent standards and a positive brand of rugby on the night.
We can look back at the latest campaign with a lot of pride, as Chadd Mutyambizi led a great programme, assisted by talented coaches in Scott Andrews, Gareth Wyatt and Justin Thomas.
A consistent value across all of our age grade programmes in recent years is that development is the number one priority for us during these campaigns. Of course, it’s always nice to add silverware to the trophy cabinet but we are firm believers that at this age we shouldn’t be governed by preparing a team to ‘win’.
We have remained focused on individual player development and this has enabled us to ensure that we cater to their individual needs, while giving everyone a fair opportunity to gain valuable experience at this level.
We are introducing these young men to training intensity and balance of skill work alongside high running load, which is an excellent way of aiding decision making while under pressure - both mentally and physically.
We strive for consistency throughout the club and therefore have introduced an alignment with the first team and the Rags in terms of language and playing systems, with the aim of bridging the gap to the next level.
Of course, these boys will head down various avenues in their rugby careers from this point but we are eager to keep working with as many of them as possible over the coming months.
Spaces within the academy are limited and while some will sign academy contracts, we’re eager to remain affiliated with those who might go on to play their rugby elsewhere - at club level or at their respective places of study. Players such as Jacob Beetham and Jamie Hill are prime examples of those who weren’t initially handed a contract but continued to work hard behind the scenes, were continually monitored and earned their places later down the line.
We will also have one eye on the national under-18 programme, which will take place in the coming weeks. We’re certain that a number of boys will have impressed in the blue and black jersey and we will have a healthy representation, in terms of both players and staff, in the final squad which will be announced in due course.
Under-16 - Men
As one campaign draws to a close, attention turns immediately to the next block of age grade fixtures with preparations underway for the under-16 Regional Age Grade Championship.
Once again we’re excited about the group we’ve inherited but the message remains the same in terms of our priorities heading into the new season.
There is obviously a slightly different dynamic at this level, with the talent pool initially split into north and south sides. However, that can only be exciting for us as it allows us to cast our net wide and develop as many local players as possible.
Our talent pathway manager, Aled James, has worked extremely hard to collate the programme, ensuring we provide quality service for players who come into this environment for the first time.
An initial extended squad has been selected, with final squad, coaching team and fixture announcements to be made in due course.
We are also hoping to finalise plans for another block of under-17 rugby, which was hugely successful last summer as we saw a number of players stepping into under-18 rugby this year.
Under-18 - Women
Elsewhere, the re-introduction of a women’s under-18 programme is a hugely positive step in the right direction for the game here in Wales. As a pathway system, we felt it was important to play our part where we can as ultimately we’re all here to proudly represent Cardiff Rugby.
Despite only being together for a short amount of time, it’s been impressive to see how the group has come together to form a vibrant programme and that’s full credit to Darren Bool and the coaching team.
Having attended training sessions and matches in recent weeks, there is a clear potential within the squad and a real appetite to improve as a group. After weeks of hard work, it was a shame that the final at Cardiff Arms Park fell foul to the adverse weather conditions, but with national selection on the horizon there is still plenty to be excited about regarding the future of women’s rugby in Cardiff and Wales.
Schools, Colleges & University Rugby
Again, we were really proud of how the four schools within our region performed in the Schools and Colleges league prior to Christmas. Cardiff and Vale College, Ysgol Glantaf and Whitchurch High School all picked up trophies on finals day, while Coleg y Cymoedd were typically competitive at the top end of the table. The success was heavily represented in our under-18 squad this season.
The end of that block doesn’t mean the end of our work with those establishments for the season. We regularly meet with all schools and colleges within our region, as well as the individual players, to mop up feedback for those who will be leaving Year 13 in the summer.
Part of this process also sees us supporting individuals with university applications as well as club placements. Our philosophy is heavily weighed on the importance of their development as people off the field alongside their work on it.
As for the Year 12 pupils who step into their last year of schools rugby, we will share development plans with them as we prepare for next year and we’re confident we’ll have already hit the ground running by the time pre-season comes around.
A little further down the ladder is the Dewar Shield and the representative sides for School Districts under-15. Historically, it’s always a top class competition and an experience that will stay with those players forever. The sides within our region all have a proud history and play a vital role in our player identification.
We monitor all fixtures as we prepare for our summer age grade programme and can hopefully move to a ‘normal’ calendar next year following the disruptions of the pandemic.
As always, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the BUCS Rugby campaign, with Danny Milton and Alan Flowers running great programmes with Cardiff Met and Cardiff University respectively. We remain in close contact with them, both in terms of monitoring players but also as a valuable platform for game-time for our academy players.
Wales under-20 and Cardiff RFC
A quick word on Alex Mann and the Wales under-20 squad following their win over Scotland. Alex has led brilliantly as captain over the last couple of years, but the character the side showed to bounce back after a difficult opening round was admirable.
While the national under-20 programme is not compatible to Cardiff’s senior rugby succession plan, there is an obvious need to increase the pool and provision, while trying to keep as many players as possible engaged, especially as we still deal with the fall-out of the pandemic. However, this is all dependant on budgets.
18 to 21 years of age is a key strategic point in terms of player development but as an academy system we’re happy with our plans in-house and the current model we have in place, which is supported by the consistency we’ve built throughout the club.
With playing opportunities potentially limited at times, Cardiff RFC, as well as the likes of Pontypridd and Glamorgan Wanderers, has provided valuable playing time for academy youngsters.Fluctuating player availability is a challenge for the Rags as it creates a lot of chopping and changing from week-to-week. The recent form has been encouraging and allowed the team to build momentum, but the challenge is to retain consistency in performances and that is a huge learning curve for our academy players in particular.
We’ve already seen how it’s benefitted players such as Efan Daniel, who made his debut against Leinster recently, as well as those who stepped in for the first team in December’s European matches.
It was also great to see eight homegrown talents extending their contracts with the Blue and Blacks earlier last month.
It would be remiss of me to provide a full-picture update without discussing our network of coaches and staff. As I’ve previously mentioned, developing local coaches is a key part of our mission statement and this has a direct knock-on effect on player progress.
Craig Everett and analyst Carwyn James have recently gained experience with the national under-20 set-up. Placements in different environments can be good to expose our staff to a variety of ideas and strategies.
We regularly seek courses for our staff to develop their overall skill-set and have also been excited to welcome two interns from Cardiff Met recently.
Aled James is doing some great work as talent pathway manager, as we form a clear vision for our development pathway, while we're delighted to support Chadd Mutyambizi as he studies for his WRU Level Four coaching course alongside some of the club's current players.
All the moving parts mentioned above - from schools rugby up to our senior academy - is only possible thanks to the dedication and quality of our staff, both in terms of employees and the invaluable volunteer network, who hold the players' best interests at heart.