My weekend in the North to take in 2 of the World Club Challenge games gave me the chance to get some rugby league style interviews in. The first took me to Wigan, I’ve already written about the good work being carried out by the Wigan Warriors Community Foundation. I left Central Park and drove into Warrington to meet Tony Fretwell National Player Development Manager with the RFL for my second slot.
My aim was to learn all about the new programme – Embed The Pathway – by way of simple explanation I’m going to write a few words from the impressive Coach Resource.
“Embed The Pathway” is regarded as the start of the England Talent Pathway.
I will lift more from the Resource but first I wanted to know more about the man driving the programme with so much enthusiasm.
As is my way we went back to the start – it always interests me to see where the passion started. Tony showed no signs of having an interest in sport before he went to secondary school, in his words he was – Not that into sport, far more into Michael Jackson!
He lived in between Castleford and Leeds as he was growing up and attended Temple Moor High School in Leeds, this was where things would change for Tony. Mr Read his PE teacher was big on both codes, he was a Loiner (Leeds Rhinos in another life) and a fan of Headingly RU too.
Mr Read praised Tony in a lesson, told him he was ok at rugby, and that got the spark lit. He was 12 at the time, a gum shield was bought and his love affair with rugby started. He played at Kippax Welfare, a club that can name Andy Lynch and Danny Orr amongst its ex players.
Tony tried his hand at the ‘other’ code but wasn’t keen on the disorder, he got stood on during his first game, and didn’t much enjoy getting hit off the ball, otherwise known as being cleared out of the ruck.
Breaking his leg at the tender age of 14 during his 1st season didn’t however put Tony off the 13 man code; the support, care and love from the club at that time was immense – the sense of community as well as the game of rugby league drew Tony in. He started watching Castleford at the same time with his Dad.
At the age of 16 Tony was signed by Bradford – he played at prop- he was big, but lacked basic skills. At that time the Academy trained twice a week and played on a Saturday. Tony spoke about how different things are today, for him it was 2 years before he went near weights.
He studied A levels at school, training in the evening – his Dad was incredibly supportive taking him time after time to Bradford. Tony was a late developer in rugby league, one factor that has made him pursue the ‘Embed The Pathway’ programme with such enthusiasm.
Matthew Elliot came to Bradford and he was the first person to show Tony how to pass! Rather than a long session of complicated moves Elliot held an early session teaching his players how to hold the ball. I reckon at that time Australians coached their young players in a different way.
Tony went off to Teeside University in Middlesborough and became a Great Britain Student International while he was there. He studied coaching and set up a Schools’ Rugby League Association as part of his dissertation, working with Dewsbury Rams. He looked to join a rugby league club when he graduated and joined Halifax as Head of Youth. He kept his (now good at passing) hand in on the playing front turning out in the Reserve Grade.
The financial wheels fell off at Halifax and Tony faced redundancy; next stop was Widnes, he also had a spell as the Assistant Coach of the England U16’s.
Having had the trauma of losing his job at Halifax, he took time out to study, taking his teaching qualification – The Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching (PGCE). Having only had an hour or so of Tony’s time his enthusiasm for all he comes into contact with is plain – it’s no surprise to me that he was offered a teaching post.
His teaching career started at Heath School in Runcorn – and again no shock to know that he set up rugby league in the school, that meant for a starter he had to go and buy rugby balls – it just hadn’t featured! Widnes have now had 5 players from the school, what a turn around!
In 2009 Tony was appointed as Director of Sport at Stretford High School – his Headteacher believed that sport was the answer, yet again there were no rugby balls! This football centric school now has a 4G rugby league pitch! A community club was also formed – the North Trafford Tigers and 2 of the lads have gone on to play for Salford.
Tony was also instrumental in forming the Teacher’s Rugby League – a network of teachers who deliver and play the game, they take part in matches against the likes of the Police and the Army. There is a bit of a common theme going on here, this young lad that loved Michael Jackson very quickly became a huge advocate of the game of rugby league!
Tony’s teaching career carried on rising and he was reaching the point of looking at Deputy Head posts – an opportunity to take a full time post with the RFL came along in the Spring of 2014. Tony saw the chance to make a genuine difference in a game he loves.
And so we come to ‘Embed The Pathway’ – the programme concentrates on 12-14 years olds and it assumes that any player could be an England player. The programme is a part of the Sky Try Initiative which has funding secured for 7 Years.
Historically 60% of players are the oldest, the biggest, working in a secondary school I know so well how different the rate of growth and strength is in this age group. This denies opportunity to those who develop at a slower pace.
The idea is to remove selective environments, holding open access development days, enabling the young players to compare themselves to themselves over time using an online tool. The idea is that no talent slips through the net, the initiative is being launched to both schools and clubs. The plan is to ensure that the same skills are being taught across the board.
Tony and his colleagues are running CPD opportunities forLevel 2 coaches across the country, reaching as far as Oxford, Gloucestershire, Devon and Cornwall. Who says rugby league is just a Northern game! The fact is there are clubs appearing all over the country almost on a weekly basis.
The programme isn’t just about the game – its aim is to teach movement and analysis, Physical Literacy. The Players Resource features 7 key movements, for example a medicine ball chest thrown and body weight squats. When you read and look through the very detailed instructions it’s plain that all 7 are key to the game of rugby league.
Along with the movement, mental aspects such as goal setting and reflective practice are part of the programme, as is the link to parents. The development of the young player is seen as a triangle of Child – Parent – Coach. There have been 2 parent workshops as well as 2 seminars fully available on YouTube.
The scheme has 18 delivery partners across the country, with Wigan Warriors being one of those at the forefront. There are full operation manuals and the RFL sends a team of ‘mystery shoppers’ out to ensure that the experience is of the same high standard for all.
One element that will encourage those coming to the game late from a different sport is that they won’t be counted in the Scholarship Quota in place for all clubs. Therefore that late developer is more likely to have a chance to thrive and clubs can take a chance on a different kind of recruit.
I checked a few facts with Tony as I wrote this – I want to share some of his vision for rugby league aided and abetted by this programme.
‘Thinking about how to improve rather than just hoping they will. We’ve got to be meticulous and refine skills, thoughts, behaviour and movements early to reach the performance level we need. We’re building routes and pathways they can climb so if they are good enough they will progress’
‘By linking our pathways to educational establishments and integrating them with pro clubs we can do this. Plus if they don’t reach Superleague they still become better community players’
‘The game will grow with opportunity – that’s all it needs. That leads to more talented athletes and growing quality and THAT’s how we will win the World Cup”
This feels like a real sea change for rugby league, exciting times across the whole country. I’d say Michael Jackson has been left far behind as far as Tony is concerned too!