Former Rugby World schools editor Huw S Thomas calls out a crisis in Welsh rugby
Rugby Rant: Dismantling youth structures has led to Welsh rugby crisis
Argument and discussion rage over the decline of Welsh fortunes at junior, regional and national level. So where has it all gone wrong after the success of the Gatland years? To my mind, the turning point of Welsh fortunes has its origin in two key WRU decisions.
The first was the gradual disbandment of the Saturday morning Dragons Rugby Trust U18 Schools and Youth Leagues. The second was the union takeover of the running of U18 rugby from the Welsh Secondary Schools and Welsh Youth Rugby Unions back in 2004.
Wales got it right when the DRT Schools League, with the backing of the WRU and Lloyds TSB, was introduced in 1998-99. At its prime there were 110 schools playing on a Saturday and many top players first shone in the early years, the likes of Dwayne Peel, Gavin Henson, Ken Owens and Luke Charteris.
The DRT introduced a successful youth league too, so that boys in and out of school had opportunities for regular competitive Saturday rugby. The record of the schools and youth international sides had been outstanding, including well-organised – and winning – tours to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Then it all went wrong.
In 2004, WRU chairman David Pickering announced that the union would take over age-grade rugby. The WRU argued that amateur, part-time coaches were not fit for purpose in the professional era and favoured a system of regional academies managed by full-time pros to feed the one union-led U18 side.
With that move, Wales lost two international sides as well as a youth scouting system that was all-embracing. With no side to run and no backing from the WRU, the WYRU ceased to exist, the Welsh Schools became toothless and the Saturday leagues petered out, with 100 youth teams believed to have disappeared in the past 20 years.
The WRU now relies on the four academies to provide players, with little concern or attention for late-developing youngsters in schools and clubs. The union has put its faith in a Welsh Colleges League, full of academy players. Standards are good for a small elite but it has creamed off the best schoolboys so that inter-school fixtures are a shadow of what they used to be.
It’s come to the point that academies dictate players’ programmes, often stopping players from turning out for their school or club in favour of extra conditioning and to prevent ‘overplaying’.
The lack of a vibrant, competitive secondary schools and youth structure, and the disappearance of Secondary Schools and Youth sides, have weakened the identification of talent. The consequences are now being seen at all levels of the Welsh game.
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