Today we can reveal the identity of the most dangerous rugby team in England, a team so disruptive to rugby in the rest of the country, and such a malign influence on young players everywhere, that they really should be banned. Today, we lay bare the malevolence of the England U16s.
It’s important to say that this is no reflection on the members of the current team, who comfortably beat Italy and Wales in April, and it’s no personal reflection on their coaches, even though they are definitely tainted by association. But merely because this team exists, I would say that in the last five years alone, thousands of youngsters have either given up rugby entirely, or lost faith in their rugby ability or themselves.
The operation of the England U16s throws the whole of the rest of English rugby at U13-U16 levels completely out of kilter. It is bogus, dangerous, wasteful elitism – and I know my severe reservations about age-group rugby in England are shared widely inside the Rugby Football Union, and the reservations are growing.
What do I know about it? Regular Rugby World readers will know I’ve been coaching and selecting at these age groups for 12 years and more. It was only a few months ago in this column that I passed on some of the fruits of all those years of experience and set out a blueprint of how to run a mini-junior rugby section. We had a powerful response, chiefly from people who agreed, and it was absolutely amazing how few people referred to in the article as problems, even if not under their own names, actually recognised themselves.
Back to England U16. The whole of rugby in the age groups I mention is now set in thrall and subverted to find players for this side. Thousands of players, hundreds of club teams, are not able to live their rugby lives because of the need to fill a mere 15 white jerseys. Club rugby at the junior level is enslaved by it. And before I go on to explain how this happens, it must be said that the choice of this elite is often palpably wrong. Selections are made by people with no qualifications to make them, and as players develop and decline at rapidly different rates, you often find that by the time they get to the U16s the so-called elite may well be useless. I can give you scores of examples of players sucked up into ‘the system’ at the age of 12 or just after, evoking dreams of glory in the hearts of their parents and themselves, who by the time they reach the age of 16 have long ago retired into disillusionment.
What happens is that English rugby is desperate to take away from the mainstream of the game a tiny elite which, for goodness sake, they start searching for at the age of 12. That really should be against the law of the land. Chiefly, the elite are dragged away into that void called county rugby. At its best, and in the grand old days where things worked so much better, county rugby for lads in their mid-teens took place on spring evenings, when all their club and school rugby was done. They would have the honour of playing for their counties in perhaps three or four games and a divisional final. They could knot their county ties around their necks and have a happy summer.
These days, county rugby kills the poor lads. There are endless county sessions just at those very stages in the season when the rugby clubs are trying to put together their teams at all the age-group levels – trying to fashion sides that will give 20 people and sometimes far more the sheer joy of playing a team sport; something which will bring the lads together, entice their parents to the rugby club, win or lose a few games, take part in tours far and wide, and generally, become part forever of rugby’s legendary spirit.
But now the lads are taken away to county training throughout the season, not just at the end of it. My local club’s U14 team lost its county players six times in ten weeks before Christmas. Shame on you, Berkshire. I’m sure it happens all over the nation, too.
There are obvious flaws in this. Club teams rarely train as a team, the teamwork is shattered and, much more to the point, matches are often called off and players left idle because the elite have been creamed off – and, with the greatest respect, it must be said again that the elite is identified too often by people without the necessary expertise.
And as the boys get older, the imperatives become more damaging. Players who are perfectly happy in their positions are told to change because someone has decided that in two years they will be better suited to another position.
The urgency becomes ever more ludicrous, because now towards the end of a season you find county calls for players who may wish to be eligible for the county team in the next season. No one, apparently, will ever allow players of note to stay and play with their friends and enjoy themselves. They are condemned to a life of inflated expectations which, for 99 out of every 100, will be dashed.
The categories of player for whom I feel most sorry are those with either the greatest expectations or no expectations at all. In my local U17 team, as I recall, neither of our two real class and promising lads has ever played for the county. On the other hand, our lad who has played for most representative teams, been dragged around for endless sessions in counties and academies and the like, is now stationed miserably out on the wing, shunting himself between positions, and probably on the verge of chucking the whole thing in. You want 50 more examples in my little area? Well, I can provide them. The depth of the disillusionment is scary.
And it gets worse. The RFU and the England counties have formulated a shocking concept called Schools of Rugby. The players allowed into these schools are an even smaller elite, often just a handful of lads per county. They are force-fed the latest trendy nonsense about training and weights and nutrition, and persuaded the fast track that they are on is anything but bogus. This elite is again taken away criminally early, often from the age of 12, taken away from the team and the team sport which they thought they were joining.
It’s amazing how often the new trends and the latest quasi-science get everyone so excited. When you listen to the really great men of preparation culture, such as Dave Reddin, you find that there is nothing new under the sun, only sympathy and clarity and focus. And charlatans trying to persuade you otherwise.
The School of Rugby philosophies are all set out and they terrify me. The lads are told at the outset that “some may play Internationals, some may become professional players”. The arrogance of people in assuming that you can spot that level of talent at 13 or even 19 is shocking. So is the lack of realisation that you can spot a true professional player or potential international only when he has played two long, hard seasons at one of the 12 top-flight English pro clubs – that’s where true development takes place. Much later in life.
One other frightening element in the School of Rugby system is this: “SoR players may not be selected for the county team during the early years as part of the SoR selection is to identify talented athletes. These athletes may not be the most aware rugby player at U14s, but at U16s may have developed sufficiently to be considered.”
And the translation? Only the big lads will be chosen, and they will be trained in a void to get bigger and fitter, but while doing so their ability to actually play rugby, to make decisions on a field, will be in reverse.
It just makes you sick, frankly. It’s like taking the puppies away in Animal Farm, and restoring them years later as snarling, unthinking, dullard beasts. English rugby has a surfeit of massive, sweated specimens. One thing it does lack, and under the School of Rugby rubbish always will, is rugby brains, decision-makers. You doubt me? Have you watched the full England team play in the past seven years? And if you are a youngster in one of those Schools, don’t you and your mum and dad realise that you’re being factory farmed? Would you not like to simply go and play games?
So, what should happen? Dissolve immediately the England U16 team and make the identifying of 12- to 15-year-old talent an offence against the spirit of rugby. Put school rugby as the priority, because trained educators will always be better than well-meaning parents who think they are coaches because they go to seminars and have badges.
Outside school rugby terms, devote all the energies to club rugby. Banish the Schools of Rugby today (not tomorrow), hold back county rugby until the end of the season. Stay in the present. Let rugby teams thrive, celebrate the friendships.
In time, the professional clubs will make their choices (from a pool of 19-year-olds, not 12-year-olds) and those who are good enough to become one of the 300-odd full-time English professionals can aim to reach their peak at the age of 25, say. Not earlier, where so many young men have been wrecked.
If I’m being harsh, tough. Young people are more important than old sensibilities, and rugby is not yet Orwellian. It is, however, getting close.
This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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