Ex-England prop Alex Corbisiero tells Jacob Whitehead of his plan to shake-up England's talent pathway
How a Premiership Draft could change English rugby
“If you want my opinion, I think that the academy system in the UK is majorly flawed, particularly for players who don’t make it.”
That’s the view of Alex Corbisiero and, as the 2021 NFL Draft gets underway in Cleveland, the ex-England and Lions prop tells Rugby World about a radical plan to revolutionise the English rugby pipeline.
Currently the scrum coach of MLR side the LA Gilitnis, unbeaten so far in their inaugural season, there are few better minds to dissect what the RFU could learn from the American collegiate model. Thinking about how a draft system might work in England, he believes it might be an opportunity to reimagine Gallagher Premiership academies.
“The academy system is flawed mainly because it’s a hybrid of club and country. It’s partially funded by the RFU, but run by the club itself, who are inclined to develop players for their own team, rather than for the benefit of the players themselves or the national side,” says Corbisiero.
“Professional rugby wasn’t pre-planned, it just happened overnight and the system evolved organically from there. The model we have now is based off football, which still pays lucratively as a teenager, where it’s physically easier to play at the top level.
“There’s a brutal reality that not everyone makes it, and there’s not a system that supports that properly yet. In rugby a lot of players are spat out at 21 or 22, and have no degree, no qualifications, and they’re left stuck. Academy wages are very similar if not the same in some cases as when I went through it in 2006-08, but player wages have increased considerably. I believe there’s a massive need to get kids in the academy educated.
“What I would suggest to redraw the landscape is to have the RFU truly taking ownership of the academy process. I would have maybe eight to ten academies, sort of RFU centres of excellence, run by emerging coaches, which are built into the universities.
“You’d create a league for the university season where these teams play in some sort of tournament, which you could commercialise, like they’ve done in the US, which fans would want to follow, and then that spills into a draft idea incredibly well.
“You’d have players on solid money straight out of university, armed with a degree as well. That’s why the university system makes sense.”
The American draft system sees teams choose players for their roster according to a reversed league table from the previous season, intended to increase the competitiveness of the weaker teams. With college football such a major commercial product, many of the top picks are already household names before they enter the professional ranks. The implications of such a league for teenage talent excites Corbisiero.
“You have to completely redraw the way the academy system is done,” he says. “I don’t fully believe that 18- and 19-year-olds should be playing in the Premiership or for England, especially with the latest scientific research into head trauma. You should wait until you’re physically developed, your brain is developed, and you’re not dragging yourself out through this long professional season.
“Instead, you’d have top-quality university rugby, with these guys being showcased as well in England age-groups. You’d have players coming out at 21, having just finished an U20 World Cup, who the RFU can develop into the best rugby players possible, rather than developing according to the needs of their parent clubs.
“It would mean they have more of a balanced life, with time to travel, to do things, to grow and mature, and then come into the draft system and hit professional rugby at 21 and be in a position to really thrive. They’re in the England set-up and the U20s, which will become the production line of a well-oiled machine.
“If you look at how France have done it, their U20 success is the bedrock of their national team success. I think actually it fixes a lot of the club country divide between England and the Premiership.
“All this has potential for a commercial model that down the line funds itself and is potentially profitable. The reason why the clubs would be incentivised is that it off-sets a massive amount of cost and resources. It’s not a level playing field at the moment. You’re letting them off-set that cost, and now they get the pick of the bunch through the draft system.”
These drafts are special, as the dreams of players are realised, coaches are put under the spotlight and fans are filled with hope. For one weekend a year, every fanbase is optimistic. As rugby fights for Generation Z, it might just be a way for rugby to set itself apart amidst the UK’s crowded sporting landscape.
“It would be a huge point of difference,” says Corbisiero. “As long as you have structure and it makes sense, it would be exciting, it’s must-see TV.
“Especially if you’re a keen fan, you’re going to track these stars, you’ll want to know who your team might pick. You might see a young fly-half in his first year as a fresher develop over three years at university, in the final year he looks sensational, and you think ‘I can see him playing for my team’. It would be brilliant.
“There would be huge hurdles and disruption to achieve this idea, but there is lots of potential long term upside for the sustainability of the game.”
Let us know what you think of Alex Corbisiero’s proposal by emailing email@example.com
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