There is an assumption in England that the system we have is natural and, ultimately, that it works. But our own rugby culture, in which the path to professionalism is increasingly through the academy structure, and players below the Championship or National One feel far removed from the elite level, is not the only way.
“I always felt the top was so far away where I was in England.” Piers Francis told The Guardian recently, “the top level seemed almost unattainable.” With Premiership Rugby economically insular, it is increasingly apparent that the same sides (Bristol, Newcastle, London Irish) are flip flopping back and forth between Premiership and Championship. They have the money.
Francis is one player who did not follow the proscribed route through the academy system, in fact, he was released by Saracens at 17 for being too small and ended up working his way up through the club scene in New Zealand before getting his crucial break at Auckland.
In New Zealand there is a unique relationship between clubs, the Super Rugby franchises and the national side that is alien to those operating in England. Top level stars like Sonny Bill Williams drop down to compete in the Mitre 10 tournament, and having All Blacks competing at the same level as ambitious young talent is key, it shows the pathway works.
For Piers Francis, this was a key motivating factor, and provided a stark contrast to life in England:
“In New Zealand you get Super Rugby players and All Blacks who come back and play for their clubs. Being exposed to those guys made the gap seem closer. It really stimulated me. I was thinking: ‘They’re not the galácticos I thought they were.’ It fuelled the fire to keep at it.”
“At Maidstone I wouldn’t have had the chance to play with someone like Billy Vunipola and have a conversation with him. If you’re in London South East 2 you don’t get the exposure to the top guys.”
Structurally, the cooperation shown in New Zealand is made possible by the overarching control of New Zealand Rugby. Whilst the system in England is different, the RFU does not exercise the same centralised power, it could be adapted, and success could be made to feel more achievable.
In England it often feels as if the different actors, operating at different levels of the game, are all pulling in different directions. Whilst the top level marches forward, prioritising financial and sporting success, there is an equal and opposite reaction in the other direction taking place at the lower rungs of the ladder.
People are increasingly championing ‘non-performance rugby,’ like those who formed the breakaway league in Lancashire, who have rejected promotion and relegation and are now prioritising participation, community and local social ties outside of the formal RFU structure.
In between these two polarities are players like Piers Francis; talented and ambitious but cut off from the very top level by the financial glass ceiling. Let us take the example of New Zealand and ensure the player development pathway stretches not just from Premiership academy to Premiership club, but up the league structure too.
Written by Joe Ronan