Life comes at you fast. For a few unlucky young rugby pros, it can be too fast. In this special report, we look at why the physical and mental demands of the game can overwhelm, and celebrate those who ensure the kids are alright. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in March.
Special report: Too Much, Too Soon In Rugby
HE WAS earmarked as special, early. As one respected youth mentor tells us, “He was described by top coaches as the next England tighthead.” But things didn’t quite pan out like that for Jack Stanley.
Brought into Exeter for his second of two years with Truro College, he played A league and LV= Cup in 2015 and trained with the first team. But soon
he decided he did not want that life.
As the Cornish native tells Rugby World: “There was a small element of being exposed to it all too soon. I must have been 18 when I had this feeling come down that I didn’t want to be at Chiefs.”
The prop was not coerced to sign up and is full of praise for the academy and coaches in Exeter. But after struggling with a broken wrist, enjoyment sapping away in the rehab room as frustrations he could not verbalise grew, there were months of “feeling s**t; I felt pretty depressed”. He abruptly walked away from the club, not even consulting his parents before making the decision.
In two years out, he moved on to “12-hour days stacking shelves in a supermarket” and his weight climbed to 155kg before he realised what rugby could be for him if he started over.
Now 23, Stanley grabbed a prospect opened up by friends and is on a dual contract with Edinburgh and Super6 side Watsonians. He loved his second year in the Scottish capital, grinding within Richard Cockerill’s structure there, happily working back from a time when he felt he had to run away from the sport (Ed: Stanley has since moved to Gloucester).
He also harbours no ill feelings and adds of his departure: “To be fair, Rob Baxter (Chiefs boss) was great about it all. He was always very understanding and apologetic – he said pretty much that they probably put too much on me as a youngster.”
On current practice, Chiefs academy head Rob Gibson tells us: “We have to make sure players are emotionally ready, they are physically ready. We are looking to put players in the Premiership at the right time, sometimes 21, 22, but it changes. It’s getting tougher due to the strength of our squad.
“Education is paramount – that’s the (focus) we push. But not every player wants to go that way, so we’ve got to try to find what’s best. You don’t always get it right, the individual doesn’t always get it right. You have to adapt to support (players).”
For those who pride themselves on developing talent, lessons along the way must be vitally important, for all parties. Of course by nature the sport is confrontational. It is not for everyone.
In a recent column for The Irish Times about entitled young athletes, former Leinster and Scotland coach Matt Williams wrote: “The privileged life of professional sport is not offered to many people and there are many doors that can quickly take you out of it.” He praised the virtues of being selfless, hard-working and willing to sacrifice.
By his own admission, Stanley says bad habits crept into his game when he thought he’d made it. But he’s glad to have seen the real world out there and is knuckling down now.
Yet, as you will read, there is much to be aware of when dealing with kids. We want them to love it.
This report looks not to point fingers or pretend there is widespread crisis. It is to show what young, ambitious players can face; the mental load, hits, added pressures. We heard stories of great work, worthy of praise. Many reflect on experiences – good and bad – constructively.
There may not be many getting it wrong but we must still safeguard against too much, too soon for future stars…
Stanley says that what was missing for him was the ear of someone who knew what he was going through. As he says: “I just feel like I should have had a bit of guidance. There wasn’t really anybody else in that situation from my college that I could relate to. I didn’t really have anyone I could share the experience with or know how to get it right, so that I didn’t end up falling out of love with it.”
He also holds his hands up and says he could have been proactive and sought others to talk to – everything was new, but “acting tough was a big part of it, because that’s probably the most important characteristic that you need to have just to play the game”.
Creating a better pathway for younger players to discuss issues is something more people in the game are working towards. But as Jack’s tale makes clear, watching how players ‘transition’ is key.
Related: The strain on young referees
The Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) tells us: “Our welfare programmes, such as ‘Gain Line’, have focused on academy players for many years, as we’re acutely aware of the transition pressures involved in players coming from a school environment into a senior professional rugby environment and then, a year or years later, making the transition into a senior squad, a different level of rugby or out of the professional game completely.”
A Premiership-wide study is underway to look at what young players deal with, as new experiences and pressures mount. The RPA adds: “We are aware of the psychological load faced by academy players and, together with the RFU, Premiership Rugby and Cardiff Met University, are undertaking (soon to be completed) research in this area.”
The RPA cannot be the only people considering mental load management. However, related studies are too few.
In the 2020 paper Applied Sport Science for Male Age-Grade Rugby Union in England, Professor Stephen Mellalieu of Cardiff Met wrote part of it on ‘psychological challenges and development’. It went: “Psychology is acknowledged as a key determinant in the realisation of potential and long-term success in sport, especially rugby union. However, despite this importance, the prevalence of systematic psychological inquiry into both senior and youth populations worldwide in the sport is scarce. To date, five studies have investigated the psychological challenges and developmental demands faced by age-grade English RU players. These studies have focused upon the stress and coping experiences of players and the psychological factors contributing to successful talent development.”
Later in the paper, it summarises: “RU players face a range of psychological demands and adopt numerous strategies to cope with these challenges… Understanding the psychological characteristics that facilitate and derail progression can enhance coaches’ player assessment when identifying and supporting youth rugby union players.
“Given the limited literature to date, future research should seek to examine in greater depth the psychological demands age-grade RU players from England face, the skills/strategies deployed to successfully transition to the elite professional level and the factors (eg, personal, situational, organisational and cultural) that mediate this progression.”
It would be naive to assume as we talk about load and transition that we are suggesting mollycoddling kids is the way ahead. According to ex-England U18 coach Russell Earnshaw, they’d prefer to play fixtures away from home, often with younger sides than their opponents, with players exploring new positions. Small bumps in the road were desirable.
Someone who has looked at the youth game through an academic prism is Jamie Taylor, who was an academy head coach at Leicester Tigers and now works as a senior performance pathway scientist for the English Institute of Sport, out of Loughborough University.
“What is widespread is those who have it too easy falling away,” Taylor tells us. For him, it’s a disaster if any kids cruise through school racking up wins, reach rep rugby and it happens again but then at the first knock – a sharp rise in training standards with the pros, playing badly or picking up an injury – they aren’t equipped to handle it.
“Someone who has an earlier birthday in an age group has a two-to-three times greater chance of being selected for a talent platform. That’s called the ‘relative age effect’. However, the data at senior level shows those numbers flattening out.
“So you might be twice as likely to be selected for a talent pathway, but you are far less likely to make it at top level.”
For Taylor, asking about ‘too much, too soon’ is the wrong question – it’s more about ‘how hard is it and for how long?’ Progression is better than sharp inclines.
He’d also like to see more education to help academies manage challenge levels appropriately and for standards of schools rugby to be raised to support long-term player development.
Taylor wants tailored plans for existing talent. A watered-down version of first-team training won’t cut it. But any plan must consider the physical side too.
“Rugby is a unique sport and I don’t think there’s another sport in the world like it,” says Peter Walton, the popular coach who led the England U18 programme for years alongside John Fletcher. Yet when asked if he thinks we often assume that academy prospects come out the sausage machine ready for the senior pro game, he answers in the affirmative. And for him we need to consider the physical maturity of kids.
“We think, ‘Yeah, he can bench-press 180kg – he’s strong’. But that doesn’t mean he’s strong enough to scrummage.
“That worries me. That people think anybody is coming out and it’s ‘Right, you’re a big-framed lad, we’ll get you in the front row.’ It doesn’t mean his whole body is ready for it. My motto is there’s no rush. I feel we rush people.”
It is worth pointing out that Walton played in Newcastle with Jonny Wilkinson – “one of the first ones who really got the chance at a young age to play the game as it got professional” – and he is now managing the youth in Gloucester, where teenage sensation Louis Rees-Zammit is tearing up trees against Premiership foes. Walton has seen a few different approaches.
He is also realistic enough to realise clubs have necessities. There is only so much money you can throw at a squad and there are fixtures to fulfil. For each fixture you need two full front rows. For him, you should have at least ten props in your squad and with some youngsters. Injuries mean that some, not ready for full games yet, may go in. He gets that. What irks him is something else.
“There have been other times, I know, where people put players in because they think they’re good enough,” Walton says. “It’s ‘He’s played age-group rugby’ or ‘He was an U18 prop’. And they are good enough (at rugby) but strength-wise, under their skeleton, under their skin, are they really good enough yet?
“That’s what worries me – that we don’t know what’s under them. We don’t know how developed neck muscles are and sure they can go on machines and push things, but are they really ready? I’m not so sure they are. I’ve spoken to guys who should be further on in their careers and aren’t. I’m convinced they were pushed into that environment a bit early.”
Walton’s next point is important: he is adamant no one does that on purpose. He also believes that every player, every scenario and every club is different. Everyone wishes they knew the exact right time to throw someone into action.
But before we jump to the medical view, it is worth getting a player’s perspective on the physical side.
Walton, and many others, believe that were it not for a career-ending neck injury, Falcons prop Scott Wilson would have had a special career for England. So when Walton says that if he could have one wish, he would want all young players to suddenly “think long-term” it chimes with Wilson’s view on his time.
“I wasn’t your average kid leaving school,” says Wilson, who did labouring upon retiring. “I was slightly bigger and able to handle myself. Looking back, whether that benefited me or maybe the brakes should have been put on so I wasn’t exposed to so much at a young age, I am not 100% sure about it.
“Because I would never say that I was pushed to play, but in my own head I probably pushed myself through injuries when I should have maybe taken a backwards step, with being so young.
“I’ve never spoken to anyone about it, but when I started at the Falcons at 18 I felt like I was bottom of the chain, I had no right to moan or complain or have my opinions. My mindset was just to get my head down and graft and hopefully gain respect through that.
“That sort of mentality maybe meant that in some training sessions, maybe games, I was playing through injuries – be it my lower back, which I had problems with for a number of years. I probably could have done with a bit more education on how to handle yourself with some injuries. Not just trying to be a hero or grit my teeth.”
Yet how can you know you need something like that? Coaches can’t read minds when youngsters bottle things up.
Wilson thought the Falcons academy was brilliant – a point we hear several times. He has no regrets and despite his career length, says: “I loved it.” Yet when talking about physical demands, he makes an interesting point.
“I wouldn’t say it’s about all the rugby but the amount of training as well. Realistically, you’re hitting a lot more scrums in training in the week than you do in the game. You probably make more tackles in the week as well.”
This is where we introduce Lesley McBride, a former physio for England U20 and a physiotherapy lecturer doing a PhD on neck strength in rugby players. The RFU, FA and Formula One figures are interested in her findings. And when Wilson wanted to talk about his final injury, guess who he called…
“What I know is all about adolescence and how that is a period of vulnerability,” McBride says. “They are more susceptible to injury when they reach peak height velocity and peak weight velocity due to the combination of new bone formation and increased load.
“The question is if coaches at all levels understand the different requirements of adolescents, and if so, can they modify training to account for these variables? Adolescence is generally categorised into early (ten-13), middle (14-16) and late (16-20). However, chronological age and skeletal/somatic growth often follow a less predictable and fixed sequence.
“The clavicle (collarbone) is the final bone in the body to fuse, at around the age of 21, so it’s not really a surprise that the second-highest incidence of injury in the Junior World Championship (after concussion) is the AC joint at the shoulder.
“Then consider scientific understanding around sleep. When the adolescent is asked to do gym training at 7am, in terms of their circadian rhythm it’s similar to asking an adult to do it at 3 or 4am. This is a recipe for disaster in terms of sleep deprivation and its impact on injury rate. Adult coaching principles cannot be applied to adolescents and yet I know that in many cases younger players’ sessions are not planned around the large body of evidence that surrounds their physical development.”
McBride likens physiotherapy to avoiding a cliff edge. You cannot wait for them to be broken at the bottom to help.
The answer, she believes, is coaches listening to and learning from the academics and the science available. Wellness testing, on the whole, is done well she adds, but you must be aware of the signs that you are overloading or, just as important, underloading players.
For example, if some are at a Premiership club and don’t play at a high standard regularly enough or train at a certain intensity often enough, they can ‘spike’ their load when it’s time to play U20 games; they’d suddenly have much more high-level training and competition than they’re used to, increasing risk.
McBride sees poor tackling as a red flag for potential neck injury, albeit a harder one to spot in open play. If a youngster isn’t up to elite standard in the scrum it can be obvious from the get-go and you can take them out and work on it. But like Wilson, there’s another aspect of the scrum she wants us to monitor.
“How many scrums are in a match?” she asks rhetorically. “An average of 13. Now how many scrums do they do in a training session in a row? Over and over again. And do people prepare for that aspect in the gym, then? No, they don’t.
“So I’ve stripped it right back to saying that for a game of rugby, which is live and intense and difficult, that you train for that sensibly. That’s doing a few scrums in each rugby session in the week – not one big scrum session, otherwise you are really stressing that neck. What we know is that as soon as the neck muscles get fatigued, your balance goes so you’re more prone to other injuries and you can’t do everything you need in a game as well. So if we looked after them from an earlier age and we planned sessions more to mimic what a game looked like, you would be protecting them.”
At the highest levels, McBride believes this happens because coaches are well educated. And with her research, which hopes to produce a standardised measurement of neck strength, she reckons teams all over the world can better determine a young player’s readiness to play on the biggest stages.
For the moment at least, you cannot tally it all. So it is about entrusting a system to do the right thing. In Bristol there is another set-up earning praise.
According to senior academy manager Gethin Watts, careful consideration goes into planning for the long-term needs of each player. Look at their breakout star, 18-year-old playmaker Ioan Lloyd.
“If you look at the amount of minutes Ioan has played, the exposure he has had has outshone the actual number of minutes he’s had. That’s actually down to design. It’s not by accident. He’s had small introductions to prepare himself for lots of minutes later down the line.”
If we want to talk about the greatest stage, we must talk Tests and the desire to one day get there. For some of those who make the climb early, though, there can be perils aplenty along the way.
We all know the story of Mat Tait in 2005, making his England debut at 18, being manhandled by Gavin Henson against Wales, dropped the next week. And on that Tait tells Rugby World, when asked if he was handled well by his national side afterwards: “Probably not!”
He believes that from a rugby perspective, dropping him was the right call but he adds: “We went back into camp on a Monday or Tuesday and I dropped out of the 23. And then I think I had to go down and watch the France game (in round two) which was torture.”
It became a national discussion. Tait wouldn’t make that side again until June 2006. He is certain that the coach at the time, Andy Robinson, and his staff will have learnt from how they used him.
Later echoing the sentiment, Tait adds: “Sport is all about failure but also after you make mistakes on and off the pitch – players, coaches, management. The important thing is taking the learnings from that to move both individual and team performance forward as the game evolves.”
In the years since, Tait has noticed an increase in public dialogues about being in a healthy place, mentally, saying: “Ultimately, if someone is in a good mental space, you will get the best version of them, whether that be in an office or on a field in front of 80,000.”
He feels Falcons’ choice to let him play sevens was great man management and helped him to evade the spotlight. But he’s wary of social media traps for kids. It is an area of intense discussion today.
Tait tells us: “When people texted me after the Wales game – friends meaning well, saying ‘Don’t read anything, you did really well’ – I thought f*** off, stop texting me! I don’t want to know, even if it’s not specifics, I know I’m dealing with this anyway. So imagine what players like Quade Cooper, Danny Cipriani – players who are potentially polarising – have to deal with, being on a platform that allows keyboard warriors to abuse them.”
Before social media really forced its way into our lives, though, there was a band of young players introduced to the very top level early, who know all about the glare. Players like Tait and Cooper, but also Mathieu Bastareaud.
“In France it was a big, big, big, big story,” Bastareaud says of the 2009 controversy when he was sent home from a tour in New Zealand for lying about falling over and injuring his face after a drunken night, claiming at first he was assaulted by five Kiwi locals.
“The prime minister talked about it in the newspapers. A lot of people talked badly about me. That was very hard for me but more for my family.
“They knew I made a mistake but all those bad comments, for me it was too much for my mistake. I killed nobody but some journalists tried to go to my mother’s house, call my father with withheld numbers. It was very hard for my family and friends.
“But at the end of this story I think it made me stronger. After that I see the real face of professional world rugby. After my international debut I was successful, I was on the top. But in two months people talked of me like I was garbage and I was finished with rugby.”
In his autobiography, Bastareaud later revealed the horror and dysfunction back home in France, of drinking and a suicide attempt. He was just 21.
Aftercare. If we learn anything from these two stories from the spotlight we can deduce that talking to youngsters at the top end, where it’s toughest, is vital. Both feel they learnt from the time, but would you want others to go through it?
There is no manual for all this. Though there are some things you can learn along the way. Eventually, somehow.
Ever since his Super Rugby debut at 18 for the Reds, Quade Cooper has caused chatter in Australia. He was a Wallaby by 20. He tells us: “It’s not like when you’re well-known at school but you’re still just kids. I don’t want to use the word ‘famous’ but as a public figure, like it or not, what you do has an impact. After my first season I didn’t understand that. I just wanted to be an 18-year-old kid.”
There was something else too. “I didn’t understand much about money. I’d never had it, my family never had it. So I’d never had advice. Who could you go to?
“I learnt the hard way. I’d spend all my money, pay cheque to pay cheque, every cent, because I knew it would fill back up. There was a lightbulb moment in the Australia U20 camp. A team-mate had just put a deposit down on a house. He was telling me about it and I thought, ‘I’ve not even bought a house.’ He saved for two years, while I was getting paid way more a week.”
He acknowledges the infantilising nature of rugby – performance is often the focus. So he found help via his agent. Sounds simple, but he still sees young players baffled by money.
Yet Cooper also sees a lot more teams getting it right, offering help and giving good advice. And he finishes with a point that sums up so much: the ideal, he says, is to have support networks in place so you can err and learn – without leaving a legacy of damage.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in March.
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