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Rees confident youngsters will benefit from Cardiff RFC experiences

Pathway | 19th November 2021

Gruff Rees is confident that the next generation of Cardiff players will reap the rewards of their Premiership experience, as the Indigo Group Premiership Cup campaign edges closer to its conclusion.

With five wins and three defeats to date, the Blue and Blacks remain in the running for a top two finish in the eastern division - which would grant them a place in the semi final.

However, there are two rounds of action remaining, with a trip to Sardis Road on the cards on Saturday followed by a home clash against Merthyr.

With a renewed alignment between the Cardiff Rugby pathway and Cardiff RFC, a number of academy players have enjoyed their first taste of senior rugby for the Rags this season.

And the Blue and Blacks aim to win any game in which they compete, Rees believes the system allows the youngsters to develop as all-round rugby players both on and off the field with bespoke development plans in place to suit the needs of the individuals.

“We spoke from the outset that this would be a model that creates development opportunities for us,” explains the academy manager.

“That’s not to say that every week we’re not chasing victories while also looking at high performance off the field relating to good coaching and playing habits.

“We’re looking to ingrain elements from the academy and bring them through to the Premiership model on a Tuesday, Thursday and into the games on a weekend.

“It’s been pleasing in many ways to see so many players having opportunities to play. Some have been consistently week-in, week-out which has been important.

“One or two are dropping back and forth between different programmes and it’s been advantageous for us that we’re able to do that with individuals, suiting to their needs.

“We’re able to look at talent identification and getting good eyes on these players through different learning opportunities, however it has also probably become a bit stretched at times.

“The pendulum has probably swung a little bit too far the other way now and the balance is slightly out. I didn’t envisage that many academy players playing consistently together for the amount of minutes they have.

“But that’s happened due to various injuries and other situations within the group. 

“We’ve ultimately had 46 different players playing across seven games, which is almost unheard of, and there’s always a good number of changes from week to week.

“Working with the seniors has been a real positive for us as well, but it’s another implication where the coaches lack a continuity in what they do on a weekly basis.

“We can’t get fixated by results because we’re consistent in our inconsistencies in how we’re approaching the games.

“But for the big picture stuff, we’re thrilled with how it’s looking. There’s individual players stepping up and embracing the challenges of senior rugby.

“All games have been close and could’ve swung either way, which has been a good learning in itself - from winning a tight game up at RGC to losing marginally a couple of times against Newport.

“But the strands of the game - the tactical elements, skill execution under pressure, being clinical - are stuff you might have another go at in age grade rugby. You get away with some bad habits but it’s different around the senior level.

“That’s been a positive learning experience for everyone in the environment.”

With previous Cardiff academy coaches such as Richie Rees, Gethin Jenkins and T Rhys Thomas progressing into roles within senior rugby, the likes of Dan Fish, Craig Everett and kicking coach Alan Kingsley are tasked with developing the next generation of talent.

With Fish also an option in the number 10 jersey for Cardiff RFC, it brings an extra and interesting dynamic as he brings his coaching onto the pitch.

Rees adds: “We’ve had a chance to look at different combinations and it’s been good to see boys in the background learning from the likes of Alex Everett, who is one of the best ball carriers in the league, and seeing how he gets better in that area.

“The set piece cohesion is another important element of being around semi professional guys. Sean Moore, for example, knows the line-outs really well and they’ve got a really good leader in Morgan Allen as a captain.

“We’ve been stretched with a few injuries, especially behind the scrum, and we haven’t been able to draw on different experiences. But we have been able to utilise Dan Fish in a player/coach role.

“He doesn’t want to be out there every week, and he knows his role has changed, but when he is there, it supports the likes of Ethan Lloyd, Ryan Wilkins, Ioan Evans, Theo Cabango, Jacob Beetham and Cameron Winnett around him.

“Our average age is so young, we have to draw on different experiences where we can. We’d be naïve not to do that in Dan’s case.

“It’s not always easy for Dan, who has a coaching responsibility from day to day. We’ve discussed what that looks like, where the boundaries are and when he flicks to player mode.

“I don’t envisage it happening for a great length of time around this model as we see it moving forward.

“But he has an unbelievable knowledge of the game, knowing the running lines and people always talk about the benefit of having a ‘coach’ on the field, but we’ve got it in a literal sense. 

“When it comes to half time messaging, Dan understands the implications of the backline and a lot of that tactical feedback will be covered in-play. From a learning point of view we’re able to be much more proactive than reactive when someone like Dan is on the field.”

With a number of senior starts in the international set-up for the Autumn Nations Series, it’s handed the opportunity for the club’s academy players to step into senior training, learning from the likes of Duane Goodfield, Matt Sherratt and Richard Hodges.

And Rees believes it adds an extra dynamic to their progression, as they look to make an impression while brushing shoulders with their more experienced peers: “Training with the seniors is certainly an interesting dynamic and a benefit to us as an academy group.

“Dan has been working closely with Matt Sherratt in assisting him in recent weeks and that’s important for his coaching development.

“The players will also get the experience of training with the seniors but without being in there for too long a period. 

“It’s important that we keep focusing on the individual attention and details that are crucial for them at this point in their career. They also have bespoke S&C programmes to keep on top of.

“However, the experience of their peers and the communication that exists around the drill design does accelerate their development.

“Myself and Dai will look at it strategically to see who deserves to go up to train with the seniors, and who could be a senior rugby player at any given time over the next year.

“That’s big around our contract modelling at the moment and there is a bit more edge around the place in terms of what the future might look like.

“Players have to earn the right. They will earn opportunities through academy training and RFC performances, but you’re going to have to impress when you train as well.

“It adds to the competitive nature of the environment we’re trying to build.

“The calendar often dictates. We have 50-odd players at the club but a lower number of games in terms of the season.

“That creates its own pressure and stresses. But that means that the academy players must be forthcoming in what they produce when they come in to train.

“Going back to Cardiff RFC, we have a good barometer for players to judge effectively where they are against good Premiership players and where they can adapt well to the senior game.

“That’s not strictly restricted to Cardiff. It’s pleasing to see Ben Burnell getting consistent rugby at Pontypridd, and doing well there, as well as Ethan Fackrell up at RGC. That’s been a really positive move for us because he’s been able to go somewhere completely different, out of his comfort zone, and having a different experience off the field.

“But Ethan is now coping with the demands of playing against the likes of Ponty, Merthyr and Cardiff on a regular basis.

“Dai has been open and transparent in terms of what he wants per player in regards to characteristics, which we tend to cover off well with the academy.

“But also the type of player, the job description and what they could be in a year or in two years time. 

“It’s something he’s looked at with the boys who were involved with Wales under-20 last summer. Tracking them is really important now to give them every opportunity, in a challenging time, to become Cardiff Rugby players and beyond in the future.”