Dewar Shield Can Protect The Future And Guard Against Too Much Wales Misery

The fall-out continues after Wales’ defeat to England, but Geraint Powell got his weekend rugby fix by watching U15s in the Dewar Shield. There were lessons, he says, in both matches.

 

High quality coaching in rugby union is critical.  Has been for decades.  Always will be now.

An always tactically complex law book for the sport, but at least the actual game used to be strategically simple for my generation.  Win the contests for possession, go forward, in support, continuously so, building pressure, scoring points, winning matches, securing competitions.  Nowadays so well organised are defences that the pivotal strategic (not merely tactical) moments are usually counter-attacking from a broken play turnover scenario.  At the elite Test level, the All Blacks are the masters at this.  At the Welsh schoolboy level, it is clearly the Rhondda Schools U15s!

Successive WRU boards have implicitly admitted the fundamental value of very good coaching at the institutional level, as we have consistently seen from their behaviour at the precious summit of the WRU pyramid.  The WRU have repeatedly spent big in order to bring in top quality New Zealand expertise as national coach, to overcome various problems in the tiers below.  Graham Henry in 1998. Steve Hansen as his later assistant and subsequently as his successor.  Warren Gatland in 2008.  These are just some of the many additional costs incurred by the WRU in not taking control of its own supply chain in 1995 and in not properly ordering a Welsh professional regional game from the outset.

I will not be analysing last weekend’s 16-21 loss to England in Cardiff in any great detail in this piece.  Just a few observations.  Others will no doubt pick over it in detail, and frankly there is little left for me to write on this blog that I haven’t written or tweeted before.   A brave effort, plucky losers, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  I am tired of that narrative.  Could have, should have, would have.  Didn’t.

Poor game management issues once again.  Thankfully the match was on the BBC, so we didn’t have to listen afterwards to Sir Clive Woodward pontificating about Welsh failures and mental fragility in terms of his famed “T-Cup” (Thinking Clearly Under Pressure) criteria.  Players and coaches alike.  Issues which should have been rectified at regional level, some even before that.

Not taking kickable penalties, in a tight brutal Test match.  How often do we turn down 3 points and successfully score 5 or 7 points against the Top 5 ranked teams?!  A series of pre-planned replacements by the clock, the on fire Ross Moriarty being the most controversial.  The controlling Rhys Webb also withdrawn.  Maybe the GPS data was giving different readings to the naked eye.  Contrast Eddie Jones, yanking off his captain just after half-time.  There was clearly nothing pre-planned about that.  He was analysing the unfolding game, Jamie George required.

And, of course, the comedy of errors/series of catastrophic blunders (delete as per your preference) in the 76th min.  A replacement scrum-half not taking responsibility, either putting the ball off the park himself or organising his forwards to carry once more until his outside-half was back in position in the pocket and with the kick to touch angle widened.  Instead a left-footed centre hoofing downfield a ball that firmly needed to be placed deep in the crowd, and in any event not to land quite so far infield, with the left wing chaser out of the game at the bottom of the breakdown in winning the turnover (and with the full back out of position in covering for him).

Then followed by a long-term out of form haunted right wing, who should have been temporarily withdrawn from the firing line of Test rugby after the 2015 World Cup and told to just go away and rediscover his love of the game and form with his region, making his third significant mistake of the match in showing the unsupported outside shoulder at the end of the defensive line that then conceded the match winning try.

 

Liam Williams. Pic: Getty Images.

A comedy of errors, involving three Test players.  In contrast, good basic skills from three English Test players.  George Ford noting and attacking the stretched defence, a beautifully weighted pass from Owen Farrell, and clinical finishing from Elliot Daly.

Talented/gifted Welsh Test players with some basic skills flaws, but also previously flagged.  The same centre that drifted so badly in one Autumn Test match that he ran his outside runners into touch.  A winger, who could never be described as a “footballer” at his poacher finisher peak, now so pitifully low in confidence for so extended a period that his very presence in the Welsh squad serves only as testimony to our wafer thin elite player pool.  The only possible reason/excuse that can be put forward for not completely rehabilitating this player well away from the unforgiving Test arena under the WRU and his region’s duty of care towards him.

Yes, basic skills shortcomings everywhere.  A hooker not hooking.  Some rotund props, yet still a creaky scrum, in an ever more aerobic challenge of a Test game where scrums are increasingly few and far between.  We are still arguably the poorest defenders of the driving maul of any of the Top 10 rugby nations, hence the in-field kicking that proved so fatal when continued into the last 5 mins.  No lineout driving maul to potentially defend, but a stretched defence not re-set and Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert left horribly exposed without any possible strong kick chase against George Ford.

One lineout of our own, after a pivotal Dan Biggar interception and breakaway, executed so badly that it would have embarrassed most grassroots club packs.  Field position surrendered through conceding a penalty at the subsequent scrum, the pressure firmly back on Wales.  Wales doing many of the harder tasks well, particularly obtaining turnovers, only to be let down by weaknesses in performing the very basics of the game.

Both mental and technical rugby skills not keeping pace with improved physicality.  Can all the Welsh Test players even execute a two against one scenario in training?  Who was the star Welsh player in New Zealand last summer, whom the Saracens are luring to London next season with £££s?  Liam Williams, an instinctive rugby player notable for having not gone through any of the 5 Welsh regional rugby academies at all.

I was glad I was not at the Test match.  I have been to many Wales v England matches over the years, between 1987 and 2012, with particularly enjoyable memories from 1993, 1999 at Wembley and in 2005, but I have not been to the Cardiff fixture since 2009 and not to the Twickenham fixture since 2012.  I simply stopped enjoying the atmosphere at this one.  Too much non-rugby needle on top of the rugby banter between two good but very different rugby cultures, too many attendees from outside of the rugby fraternity, too much alcohol being consumed during the match itself.  I hope things have improved since my last match, but some of the tweets about Alex Cuthbert hardly inspire confidence.

I, instead, earlier that day closely watched a thoroughly entertaining under 15s Dewar Shield schoolboys match between the Pontypridd and Rhondda districts on the artificial surface at Sardis Road.  We need to reintroduce the brains and nous into Welsh rugby, albeit without losing the physical competitiveness achieved.  More skilful rugby without reverting to physical soft touches.  Salvation for Welsh rugby now lies in the next generation, if we can finally reform a “super” club structure at the regional level that was completely obsolescent upon creation on April Fool’s Day 2003.  It just wasn’t quite as archaic as the preceding 1995-2003 chaotic club “Dodge City” environment.

The regional player development pathway (PDP) has over the last decade increasingly become a sacred cow, the NHS of Welsh rugby.  Any criticism or suggestions for improvement are verboten.  Regionalists reticent to criticise the one part of regionalism that is working to a limited extent.  The anti-regionalists are happy to exempt the PDP from their vitriol, some happy to seize all the best regional players without the customary representation price tag, for even English rugby recognised the need for regional academies and the Premier Rugby cartel ensured they operated all 14 of them and then just needed to kill off age grade divisional rugby above the counties.  “A club running a regional development pathway” sanitised in some minds, despite the obvious conceptual intellectual incoherence.  Exacerbated in tribal Welsh rugby.

Pontypridd U15s. Pic: Rob Summerhill Photography.

But all is not well with the regional PDP.  The best that can be said is that it still operates better than most of the other defective regional structures and systems in Welsh rugby, despite the multitude of problems.  The problems, once again, and with only one or two exceptions, are not with the personalities at the academies but rather the structures and systems in place.  Even Terry Cobner, the retired WRU executive who set-up the regional PDP, is less than happy with the current situation.  After a decade of tactful silence on Welsh rugby issues, I don’t think Terry broke cover lightly.  He only said what numerous others at the coal face have been telling me privately for a number of years.

In some instances, upon entering the elite academies, the quality and certainly the intensity of rugby skills training for some school boys actually declines.  Academy players, as well as regional fringe players, get shunted between and temporarily parachuted into clubs.  An absence of continuity of coaching and rugby, not just damaging to the integrity of the club competitions they play in but also a failure to properly embed developing talent in both a region culture and a club culture.  And then the obsession with “development”, young players used to competitively playing and winning sent into a dubious culture of teams shipping cricket scores in the name of “development” in front of non-existent crowds.  Developing what?  Graciousness in heavy defeat? Inter personal skills in interacting with the handful of fans in retrieving the ball after opposition kicks?

I was always likely to analyse age grade issues through the prism of the failing Blues region.  Certainly no point in discussing this through the prism of the interface between the North Wales academy and the North Wales pro region!  Beyond the overall situation across the regions, we all know there are some additional region very specific problems with the Blues in relation to most of District C (the more easterly District C clubs of the Rhymney Valley having been allocated to the Dragons region of Gwent, including the impressive Penallta young player production line – but what do clubs like Penallta get in return for their contribution to the regional PDP?).

We know in structural terms that there is an input problem there, as was again demonstrated by the Welsh U20s 23 man selection for the England U20s match last Friday.  9 players from District C, but only 2 from the District B of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.  The players hailing heavily from north of the M4, the region’s alienating club heritage branding confining fan support to mostly south of the M4.  A District C lock selected by Wales U20s from outside of the Blues academy altogether.  It’s all well and good for the region’s Chairman to say at least the families will come and support, but we are talking about an area with hundreds of thousands of people.  The very largest of player families are not big enough to make a small dent in the affinity vacuum.  An obvious structural disconnect, a non-alignment if you prefer.

There is implicitly another disguised input problem.  Why are Cardiff (23) schools underperforming over time relative to Pontypridd (7), Rhondda (6), and the Cynon Valley (4) schools at Dewar Shield level?  Cardiff has more schools than these 3 valleys districts (plus Merthyr’s 4 schools) combined, yet lost 0-29 to Rhondda this season.  Cardiff should be the district dominating the Dewar Shield, not Rhondda.  Later lumping all the players together as “Blues” is just disguising this problem.

Rhondda Schools U15s. Pic: Rob Summerhill Photography.

As well as these two input problems, there is clearly also an output problem at the Blues.  A failure to convert the District C players into professional rugby players with the same degree of success as other clubs were achieving before our 2003 form of half-hearted regionalism.  Pontypridd developed British Lions in their formative years (Neil Jenkins, Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, even arguably Ian Evans).  I am old enough to remember my Pontypool, way outside of District C, doing the same with Staff Jones in an earlier era.  A Pooler player acquired from just outside of Pontypridd, and staying with Pooler for his career.  What hope for this generation of young Blues players, unable to even get game time behind of so many ageing journeymen imports at the Blues?  Some youngsters even shunted to Cardiff RFC by the Blues, now left with Tier 2 WRU Premiership rugby.

And, of course, we have the phenomenally successful Rhondda Schools Rugby programme to add to this heady East Glamorganshire brew.  Long partially funded by Bernard Jones.  15 consecutive semi-finals in the U15s Dewar Shield, 12 final appearances and 9 wins.

Rhondda Schools won 27-7 on Saturday (an enjoyable match, refereed well by Kelvin Shorte of Taffs Well).  A very well coached and a very well drilled side, but able to think.  Pontypridd Schools were not a poor side or a poorly coached side by any means.  Far from it in fact, the opposite.  There was plenty of good structure and good talent there.  But in particular, whenever they conceded a turnover, the Rhondda Schools machine instantly went into counter-attacking overdrive and Pontypridd Schools were repeatedly caught defending too narrowly (down their right in particular) and shipped tries accordingly.

When a skill deficiency manifested itself with one talented Rhondda Schools player during the match, you could see that it had already noted by the coaches from the previous match.  I was matter of fact informed that it had recently been identified and was already being addressed in training, with the minimum of fuss, and will be completely corrected in the forthcoming weeks.  Nipped in the bud, as it should be, and rectified long before it ever becomes a serious problem for the player’s confidence or for his team.  Good coaching.

If anybody were to argue that Rhondda Schools take things too seriously for the Dewar Shield level, with past tours of New Zealand and South Africa, that would only (at best) be an argument for another tier above this tournament at this age grade.  We have to balance the requirements of the elite game with the participant grassroots game, within a single WRU pyramid, and representative district schools rugby should undoubtedly be leaning towards the former (if not exclusively so by any means) and the impending academy selections.  The aim should be to get other teams up to the same standard, not least so that the regional academies don’t have to ponder over whether different school districts have players with more/less exhausted levels of future developmental potential.

For those, like myself, fundamentally and implacably opposed to any complete severance between a professional regions game and an amateur club game (forget any naïve hope of a separate long-term continuing semi-professional club game, if that ever happens), we do agonise over these issues.  Like New Zealand rugby did and does.  How to equitably balance in the long-term all resources across all tiers of the WRU pyramid?  Pro, semi-pro, amateur.  Women, schools, youth.  We live in an era where the men’s pro game would seize every £ if it could, due to the considerable short-term financial pressures it is under.  How to “bridge the gap” between tiers, from the academy missed and the late developers into the pro regions to not losing disillusioned post-academy pro region “discards” from rugby altogether at 20 years of age?  We already have a struggling youth game shorn of many of its leading lights, to man the precious academies to begin with.

Far easier for those who lazily say to completely sever Welsh rugby at 15 years of age into an elite professional game of regions, regions “A” and academies and a participant amateur game of clubs with youth sides.  With little, if any, interaction between the two thereafter.  Never the twain shall meet.  No crossover.  A world where the likes of Liam Williams would only ever play amateur club rugby.  They will leave it to us to pick up the pieces, when such an ill-considered apart-hood approach inevitably all goes horribly wrong in Welsh rugby’s diverse and egalitarian cultural fabric.  That approach would never end happily in Welsh rugby, even if we had proper representative regions rather than divisive “super” clubs.

Looking at the Rhondda Schools side, because I was primarily focussed upon them in this match, and ignoring late physical developers, I would say there were at least 4 with serious potential to play regional rugby on their current development trajectory.  I won’t name them individually, not least because of their age.  Most of the others, whether or not they pass through the Blues academy, will one day be looking at WRU Premiership or WRU Championship standard, if they so desire (a few may run into some local Rhondda rugby clubs with very different ideas about their optimal utilisation!).

Terry Cobner

It is too late to rectify some skill shortcomings in the current generation of elite players, hopelessly ill-equipped to out think 15 rugby players opposing them, to use their brains within and in addition to a coached framework game plan, but we must do better with the next generation.  The game is becoming more fluid and may eventually sensibly become less physically confrontational at the elite end.  Most fans will prefer that, a more open game, but their preference will not be the reason for the evolution.

A likely wave of future personal injury litigation, a legal cottage industry about to be created, against World Rugby, the national unions and private Anglo-French club employers will drive this forwards.  The buck passing between the three should be interesting, if nothing else, watching the blame game for the first two decades of the professional era and allocating liabilities for excesses.

We are already seeing the initial risk management fears and responses, from sterner aerial collision and high tackle consequences to mandatory head injury assessments.  We banned proper rucking, but instead we have asked players to charge head first like Kamikazes into defensive walls of players.  Especially in the more attritional Northern Hemisphere, far away from the aerobic Antipodes.

If Welsh rugby is desperately crying out for better structures and systems in the totality, then better coaching and better development of basic young player footballing skills and game management would not go awry.  Players who can think themselves across the winning line, whatever their coached framework game plan.  And raising coaching standards requires raising coach standards.  The two are inextricably intertwined.  A never ending pursuit of rising standards.

As Terry Cobner succinctly and accurately summarises it:

If you look at the All Blacks, who remain the yardstick, they do the basics, they do it at speed and they do it for 80 minutes.”

If you doubt me over these issues, ask Rhondda Schools.  Good luck to them for the rest of their Dewar Shield campaign.  And good luck also to Pontypridd Schools.

 

This article appears courtesy of The Viet Gwent, a rugby blog. https://thevietgwent.wordpress.com/

 

 

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