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Rees confident that pathway puts the next generation on the right tracks

Pathway | 23rd May 2023

With Cardiff RFC’s season officially drawing to a close on the weekend, Gruff Rees is confident that the club’s pathway strategy is designed efficiently to prioritise the next generation of Blue and Blacks stars.

Recent seasons has seen the likes of Mason Grady, Max Llewellyn, Teddy Williams and Theo Cabango graduating from the club’s academy to become fully fledged members of the first team at Cardiff Arms Park.

Hoping to follow in their footsteps and graduate into first team rugby, a number of youngsters played crucial roles for the Rags as they claimed the Premiership Cup and topped the league table only to lose out on the double in the play-off final on Sunday.

Cameron Winnett led the way, having featured for more than 1,600 minutes across the course of the campaign, while a further seven players made at least 20 appearances during the season, with playing opportunities also presented at national age grade, university sides and other club teams.

The end of the current season marks the end of a cycle for the academy, which decisions made on a group of players who have been with the club since the Covid-19 outbreak. With player development naturally being challenged over the course of the lockdown, the club remained loyal to many of those contracted to give them the best opportunity of progression in their careers.

With a new wave of players expected to sign with the academy, Rees has reflected on the academy’s progress over the last couple of years and is pleased with the state of play of the succession plan as we head into 2023/24.

“The Welsh rugby landscape is more challenging than ever but it does get you to sit, reflect and really think deeply about what we’ve been doing over the last couple of years, especially when you see some struggles at national age grade,” explained the academy manager.

"But I’m always adamant that those struggles aren’t necessarily a reflection of what’s going on day-in, day-out within an academy plan, which isn’t necessarily compatible with national age grade success at times. 

“Internally, we’re always looking to improve and we’ve not always got things right over the last two or three years but going through and coming out of the lockdown period and into the alignment between the RFC and academy, we’re happy with the way we’ve pulled our succession plan together.

“We’re linking with the senior plan, and statistically when you look at the summer of 2020 and the lockdown period, we had 22 players who were in elite rugby status and training with us, and 18 of those are still in professional rugby environments.

“They’re not all necessarily with us at the moment, and there are some good guys like Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Louie Hennessey, Ben Warren and Nathan Evans who have gone elsewhere, and that’s part of their choice in terms of opportunities and decisions made internally. 

“But 11 of those 22 are still Cardiff Rugby players. At that time, the likes of Mason Grady, Teddy Williams and Efan Daniel were still on academy contracts and they’ve progressed since then.

“Elsewhere you had boys like Jacob Beetham, Alex Mann, Rhys Barratt, Theo Cabango, Cameron Winnett and Efan Daniel, and we’ve been patient with their development. Someone like Evan Lloyd is converting to hooker for example.

“It was important for us that we showed loyalty contractually to a lot of those, and that was for the right reasons, morally and ethically coming out of a period where there was no rugby for a lot of them during the horrendous Covid period.

“But we came through that and to be fair a lot of them have kicked on. Giving the means for them to do that has been pleasing via the academy programme, along with good links with the seniors in terms of the type of players we’re looking for per position. Giving them the opportunity internally via the RFC has also worked really well for us at times.”

While Cardiff RFC is an opportunity for the club’s promising youngsters to make a step up, Rees has consistently insisted that they must earn playing time for the Rags.

The academy manager is also excited to take a look at the next generation of players coming out of the age grade sides as the pathway looks to align to the club’s DNA at all levels.

“A lot of robust planning goes into each and every individual player development plan but often development is where talent meets opportunity. For us, it’s about creating good opportunities,” added Rees.

“We’ve always said the RFC aren’t a development team but we do factor in development opportunities alongside quality semi professionals. We want it to be high performance in terms of the support we give that programme from a coaching, S&C and medical point-of-view.

“That helps us align with the progression into the seniors, which we're grateful for the support of the Cardiff RFC committee. It’s created good opportunities for a lot of guys going into the senior pathway and we’ve seen a few of them flourishing at that level and moving onto the international rugby window.

“The key for us now is that we can’t stand still. We probably haven’t invested as much in the current 18-20 group in Wales, and that’s due to the financial constraints, where we were with the current group and also the fact that competition is rife. We were comfortable with what was in the building and felt that they were pushing and challenging and the numbers show positivity around those decisions.

“What was apparent to us was that the next wave of intake was key, looking at that 16-18 group. Even during lockdown, a lot of work went into engaging with players coming through the 15s and 16s, knowing that they’d be critical in the next phase and the partnerships we have with schools and colleges.

“Aled James spent a fair bit of time working strategically on opportunities, because they were scarce around lockdown, trying to be creative in how we did things with players and institutions. That gave us an early glimpse of some good early talent identification, in terms of the right players. 

“Ultimately we’ve come to a point where the current 18s team, even though they weren’t always perfect on some of their team performances, have a real player development focus which we consider to be much more relevant at this age. 

“Of course there were aspects that we weren’t always pleased about, in terms of technical and tactical stuff on the pitch, but behind the scenes Aled and the coaches built an environment that has got clear principles that is linked to what we deliver through the academy and feeds into the RFC and what the first team needs.

“It’s worked really well for us, and filtering that across our schools and colleges has been key. 

“Ultimately we’ve come off the back of a year of U18s national group where 70 per cent of the national squad come from the Cardiff pathway and that’s incredible, really. It’s not to say that everything is right here or everything is wrong elsewhere, but internally it’s proof off the back of the amount of players we’re engaging with and the amount of opportunity we offer ay U17s and U18s of our development.

“We’re trying to factor in more opportunities for more players and then become elitist later down the line. A lot of those will hopefully push onto academy status and they’re the next wave of players to come through, replicating the recent numbers we’ve had.”

As previously mentioned, with a large playing pool of talent within the region and only a limited number of academy contracts available, some players will go on to play their rugby at other Welsh club or on the other side of the Severn Bridge.

However, the academy manager is confident that the pathway system prioritises the individuals’ wellbeing at the club, both on and off the field, and insists the door doesn’t close for their Cardiff hopes.

Rees concludes: “I can’t think of barely anyone who has slipped the net as such, but in terms of the challenge we have we’re making judgements on players all the time. Often with those judgements you’ve got to back some of the data that we’ve got, both from a skill and physical point of view.

“It’s about being open and honest with those who are trying to get a contract, for example if there’s a number of players in the same position in the national squads. But even in those scenarios we’re doing our absolute best to explore other opportunities for those players in Wales. 

“That is, again, about us trying to connect aspects of the Welsh game, which hasn’t really taken place. We’ve been proactive in trying to create those opportunities because we do have the talent pool and do genuinely want the best for players both on and off the field.

“There’s also players we want to keep in the system which, for varying reasons, will turn us down. So it’s about working through the choices that we’re making, respecting the decisions made by parents and players who look elsewhere and, while not always agreeing, understanding that the landscape is tough at the moment and that we’re in a competitive market as well.

“Within that competition, we’re still trying to look at what fits our succession plan and often some positions are more of a priority than others at times. Senior coaches will also be looking for specific things and people don’t always consider that.

“What the players don’t always realise is that there is always someone behind you and someone in front of you. I understand that players and parents want to live in the ‘here and now’ of the world that they know but we can often see the full panoramic view of what’s around and where it fits the club’s plans.

“For those that might go on to play elsewhere following the academy, I genuinely don’t think the door is close for their futures as professionals and they have that opportunity to impress on the club’s doorstep.

“Due to challenge of contract numbers due to the landscape in Wales, we are signposting a couple who might be moving to play Premiership rugby only. But there could still be an opportunity there for them, particularly if they’re maintaining their training load, diligence, their work rate behind the scenes. And we’ll support that where we can.

“Likewise, you’ve got boys looking at further education and university opportunities and the BUCS programme is showing that if you’re maintaining your training history up to 21 or 22 in the current landscape, it could create opportunities for players to come back into it.

“There’s also vocational opportunities, so we’re not looking at them as just rugby players but actually broader opportunities which will enrich some of their life experiences.”