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Rees excited for new era of Blue and Black collaboration

Pathway | 18th August 2021

Cardiff Rugby academy manager, Gruff Rees, is excited by the blend of youth and experience included in the Cardiff RFC squad for the upcoming season.

Steve Law’s side, who have a renewed alignment with the first team at Cardiff Arms Park,  will kick off their Indigo Group Premiership Cup campaign by hosting RGC 1404, but first welcome London Welsh to the capital for a pre-season clash at the iconic stadium.

They will very much look to pick up where they left off, having topped the Premiership table before the pandemic cut their season short in 2020.

The core squad at Law’s disposal was confirmed earlier this week, with experienced campaigners such as Tom Habberfield, Morgan Allen, Ryan Edwards and Jack Maynard lining up alongside an exciting group of the club’s academy players.

Rees, who insists the academy players will have to earn the right to wear the blue and black jersey, hopes the make up of the squad will produce a healthy balance of player development while also challenging in the league, and believes the reassessed nature of the ‘Rags’ will provide a better, more consistent service for all parties involved at semi professional level.

“There’s a bit of continuity from where the squad finished before the pandemic but are bolstered by some quality new additions who have proved themselves in that league,” said the academy manager.

“The balance will focus around how they can support performances as well as supporting the development of the younger group around them. When you add in the academy contracted boys into that mix, then it becomes a nice balance.

“Sometimes it was quite ad-hoc in nature, and that was more of our fault rather than the clubs. Now it’s more about aligning the messaging between the first team and Premiership side. 

“We’re now able to look at the calendar to see where the windows are for some individual developments for players off the field but also where players can get continuity of rugby. 

“But there’s also the power of selection. Boys have to earn their selection whoever you are, whether you’re 18 or 32, and we’ll be looking closely at performances week-in, week-out.

“The majority of the semi professional boys have been recruited because they’re quality players who are among the best in their positions in terms of the league itself. 

“But what was also an important factor in my mind when it came to retaining and keeping them involved was their influence on and off the field around the messaging they can give and their leadership characteristics.

“They’re damn good people who can help us as members of staff in terms of mentoring these young players, and often it’s more powerful from their peers. That’s what we’ve seen in terms of development before.

“Tom Habberfield and Morgan Allen are great examples of that type of personality and being around boys like Ethan Lloyd, Evan Lloyd, Alex Mann and Gwilym Evans they will be huge role models.

“But these are individuals who will be pushing their own standards as well because that competitiveness is something I want driven from within the group itself.

“In the past there have been certain periods that are tricky and it’s just not fair on anyone, because it just became a drop-in centre at times.

“Some players would come in for the team run and the games only and that meant you’re not part of the culture built by the playing group.

“It was often less fair on the semi pro guys who were reliable, turned up every week and often jettisoned out of selection without any fair comparisons or effective communications.

“That’s the stuff that myself and Steve are really passionate about in terms of getting it right, alongside senior players coming back into it.

“It becomes far more aligned, while developmentally we can see who deserves selection when and reward players for performances in training when we see boys go up against each other.

“Ultimately that has to drive the academy because they won’t earn the right to a shirt just because they’re contracted to the academy. They need to earn that shirt on the basis of what they do on the field and around the group.”

Born and bred in Cardiff, Rees was educated at Ysgol Gyfun Glantaf, and appeared for the ‘Rags’ during his playing career, having previously represented the Cardiff youth and under-21 sides.

He understands the importance and significant standing the side has historically held at the club and is confident head coach Law is the perfect man to lead to outfit.

The former Ospreys backs coach added: “We’ve spoken previously with the academy players around the history of the club and what it all means, including the standing of the Rags here. It’s something I’m passionate about, having been a Cardiff Youth and Rags player back in the day

“I remember playing in a Rags team alongside the likes of Mark Ring and Mikey Rayer, which was hugely incredible for my development as a young player.

“They were learning experiences and opportunities to pick their brains and wisdom on things. I saw how gifted they were and the difference in standards they were looking at and where some of us younger boys were at at the time.

“It’s a similar comparison now even if it is a different world in terms of the academy. But I do want everyone to buy into a bit of the old school nature alongside the tradition of the aspirations the club has to be the best.

“I’ve known Steve for a long time. We’ve coached against each other and he’s a long-term colleague who I’ve had a lot of different relationships with through various roles over the years.

“I’ve got a huge admiration for him as a rugby man so when we looked at this route, I thought it was important that we retained a continuity around what he’d built up over his three years at the club. The identity and environment he’d built with Cardiff RFC was one I hugely admired.

“We couldn’t always align that as we wanted around our professional world, but between us we’ve had a lot of dialogue and a lot of quality time together recently.

“We can understand where the two worlds fit and complement each other brilliantly both in terms of how we run things but also in terms of me being comfortable with him, the rugby messages and working closely with [academy coaches] Craig Everett and Dan Fish.

“Obviously for me, they’re day-in day-out colleagues but Steve also adds in a different dynamic in terms of what he needs.

“He’s one of the most experienced Welsh coaches in the game and he deserves the acknowledgment and continuity to work with the group and enter this brave new world with us.

Recent Wales under-20 internationals such as Efan Daniel, Ethan Lloyd, Jacob Beetham and skipper Alex Mann are all academy members included in the Rags’ squad for the campaign and will train fully with the side.

Rees believes the experience is a natural next step for those youngsters, while he cites James Ratti as a perfect example of how it can provide a platform for players to catch the eye of senior coaches.

Rees explains: “We’ve had good review alongside the WRU following the under-20 campaign and we brought the group back in pretty quickly after looking at the calendar.

“It’s for their own personal good in terms of where we want them to push on and earn their right for Cardiff selection.

“We’re complementing that with a lot of really good individual development plans where the fixtures can align to that thought process. It also integrates into what Dai wants in terms of young players coming through.

“It was great for them to wear the Wales jersey at that level, but it’s still a moment in time. We’ve seen in the past how important it is for players to kick on pretty quickly after that and earn the right around Cardiff Rugby to play for the RFC and ultimately push for a senior spot.

“I know there will be a lot of fluidity around it because of the use of the same language, calling system around the coaching and what we’re looking at.

“James Ratti is a name that rightly gets flagged up in terms of the purpose of Cardiff RFC, which is to go out and perform to the best of your ability.

“Within the pathway there’s development opportunities for players.

“James was a brilliant acquisition and that’s where Steve, with his contacts and working around the ambition of what Cardiff were about, identified a player who could come out of a professional environment but still receive a good level of coaching and service in order to stay within a pathway.

“That’s a good example for players to see where it’s never linear when it comes to senior coaches looking at the right type of player.

“James had an opportunity, via the RFC, and he was able to take that and kick on. I’d hope, whether you’re an academy player or a 23-24 year old, that when you’re in the Cardiff environment you know there’s eyes on you and you’ll be judged at the right level of standard.”