It is beyond dispute that the academy system effectively moulds young players, those that ‘make it’ at least, into good professional rugby players. From the intensity, fitness and physicality of these players, to their ability to respond to demands of pressure and nutrition, the structure exposes players to the tests they are likely to experience as professionals.
The U-18s Premiership and the Wellington tournament, the flagship events in the Academy season, are played at an excellent standard, offering experience to young players that goes on to become invaluable later in their career.
However, for those who do not make it, who perhaps make a few development squads before being dropped, the picture is a lot less healthy. Rugby is suffering from high teenage dropout rates, and it is possible that the academy system, in the way it is currently constituted, is a contributing factor.
Players are now committed to clubs from 15, exactly the age when dropout rates increase radically. This is too young, and whilst scrapping England u-16s was a positive step, more needs to be done.
From an increasingly young age players are training multiple times a week for clubs, schools and academies; is this a culture conducive to fostering a long term love of rugby? How many coaches have seen players aged 16 to 18 reject the transition to senior rugby simply because they have had enough?
Those who are exposed to the demands of academy rugby and go on to be dropped from the system risk falling out of love with the game.
Furthermore, the academy structure is part of a culture of winning, of professionalisation, of high demands, and it produces players well versed in that mindset. But that mindset can seem joyless, robotic and repetitive, and, in its wake, it leaves players scrambling to work hard to be picked.
Whether it be lifting weights from too early an age or playing three times a week, age group rugby is extremely demanding, and these demands can be off-putting. Put succinctly, players can become ‘rugby’d’ out.
Surely a healthier relationship between players and the sport at school age can be found. The transition from colts to senior rugby is absolutely essential to the sustained health of community rugby, and if players are quitting the sport at the age of 16 – 18, clubs will suffer, not only in terms of numbers, but also in culture and atmosphere.
Fundamentally, having good senior players who have moved up from age group rugby is the ideal scenario. These players strongly identify with the club, and are proud to play for the jersey, but they are increasingly rare.
On balance, in a relatively short period of time, academies have got more right than wrong. Rugby, however, must be introspective if it wants to arrest its falling participation figures, and academies must commit to tempering some of their demands on young players.
Written by Joe Ronan