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Rees reflects on Cardiff U18 men's campaign

Pathway | 9th March 2023

Cardiff U18’s Regional Age Grade Championship campaign drew to a close last week as the young Blue and Blacks signed off on a high, securing victory over newly crowned champions, Ospreys, at Aberavon.

We caught up with academy manager Gruff Rees to reflect on a campaign where Cardiff claimed six victories.

Gruff, having had time to reflect and review the Championship campaign, what are the main takeaways and learnings you took out of the block?

The bigger picture is the mandate, which is the long term development of these players and, for a lot of them, their exit routes out of the pathway and how we can support them in the future. 

We want make sure we can captivate as many as possible to stay within the pathway in some form, because there are a lot of talented players there who we want to keep supporting. A few will be contractually but a lot of the others will be through educational routes, vocational as well as in club rugby.

There are potential Championship options while others will put themselves in the Premiership shop window sooner rather than later.

Developing young players is crucial for the club, and overall we looked at 42 players over the course of the under 18 campaign. We’re probably not as elitist as some of the other teams in the competition, although I respect where they’re at and how they see the Championship.

But we’re very individually based and within that we’re pleased that 18 of our players attended the wider squad session for the national age grade team last weekend, with 15 travelling to Scotland this week for their first touch-point of competitive representative games.

We’re working closely with schools and colleges around individual development plans, and it’s been nice to see that progression coming through the RAG block.

From a performance point of view, we were disappointed with some of the inconsistencies on the field. 

It’s a good competition to be involved with and it is a level up. You look at a lot of our players, who are rightly perceived as quality talents within Wales after their performances for schools and colleges, but they’ve found those challenges hard.

But it was a big learning block for our players to stay focused and be at your best. Assumption will catch up with you in the rugby landscape, and it did for a few of our guys. So it was good learning for me and the coaching staff to see who reacts to different challenges.

There is also a challenge in the calendar, which was particularly tough for Aled James to manage. An example is travelling up to RGC on the Sunday following the final of the Schools & Colleges league on the Wednesday prior. That doesn’t sit right with the annual planning with the WRU and we’ve got to be better around that sort of stuff.

We also had Cardiff and Vale College going to Thailand for the World Schools Festival, which was an excellent opportunity and one we fully supported. 

But immersing ourselves in a programme, which brings in lots of players from different groups, was a huge challenge. We probably ran before we could walk in terms of the principles we want to put in play, which comes through the pathway, as opposed to taking stock and doing the basics well.

With an extended squad that was varied in ages - some into their final year at this age group and others still eligible for under-16 rugby - is this an important learning curve for the senior players in terms of building leadership skills?

We’re looking at the Year 13 boys in particular to bring leadership into the group during campaigns like this.

You’ve got someone like Harri Wilde, who represented Wales under-18 last year and has been instrumental for Glantaf. We gave him ownership of what we’re trying to do and getting him to understand how to apply principles and good decision making in his own play but also working with people around him.

We try to strip it back a little bit in order to play the picture you see, which allows someone like Harri to flourish.

That was important to us, but you also had people who would be too old for national selection. We brought hooker Gavin Parry in initially, but it became quickly apparent that his development would be better suited in senior rugby with Pontypridd.

Lucas de la Rua came in for a bit of game time, but again we were looking at the senior game for him. As it turns out, he’s had a quick rise into the Wales under-20 group.

Matty Young, the Whitchurch full back, unfortunately got injured but hopefully someone like him will be involved with Wales under-19.

So it’s trying to incorporate all those scenarios into the selection mix while encouraging guys to be the leaders that they are for their schools and colleges, like Evan Wood and Saul Hurley who are outstanding young men. They have an understanding of rugby and the units within the game, and how to support people in the right way.

I can’t commend some of those guys highly enough.

What were the main challenges facing the coaching team and how do you review their progress throughout the campaign?

It’s pretty straightforward with Chadd. He’s been with us a while and he’s got a real empathy for player development. He led the under-18s programme really well last year and he’s also around this age group weekly with his role at Glantaf. 

He fits hand in glove to a lot of the principles that Aled James has got running through the pathway, from under-16 to under-18 and beyond.

There was a challenge in bringing in two technical coaches into the group, but it was good development for them and they learned on the job.

They were dealing with quick turnarounds, but we’ve also got to be better around feedback, which we need around individual player support and was an eye opener for those guys.

To be fair to them, a lot of that is done internally through me and Aled, where we can often see and focus on the big picture. 

We also don’t play our ‘best XV’ every week, for developmental reasons, so for coaches the lack of continuity can be a challenge.

But having done a good, thorough coaches review this week, there is aspects of our delivery that we need to be better at, in terms of the transition through the groups and the technical and tactical things we want delivered.

We’re good in the overall scope of the game, such as attack and defence, but our unit-based work needs more attention to allow the under-18 side to be a step up from the schools and colleges and to allow players coming through the pathway to see that development. Our coaches can certainly support that.