The Ospreys have revealed details of changes to their development pathway for players between the ages of 16 and 19, which will place more importance on the three District teams in the region, Afan Nedd, Bridgend and Swansea.
The changes are aimed at increasing the number of teenagers actively involved in the game at that age, a time when playing numbers noticeably decreases as they finish schooling, and providing both players and the region the chance to ensure that late developers don’t drop out of the system after not being selected for the region at age-grade level.
After lengthy discussions between the Ospreys and representatives of the three Districts, the initial change has already been implemented, with the Districts now operating U17 and U19 teams for the first time, the latter of which will feed directly into a new Ospreys U20 side that will launch next season. The District sides will provide the route into the new Ospreys side for any players, underlining their status as an integral part of the player development pathway in the region.
Andrew Millward, Regional Performance Development Manager at the Ospreys, says he is delighted that lengthy discussions have led to the region and the Districts coming to an agreement on the future of age-grade rugby in Ospreylia that will, hopefully, see all parties go from strength to strength. He commented:
“It’s fantastic news that we have been able to work with Afan Nedd, Bridgend and Swansea Districts to put a structure in place that sets out a clear development pathway for young players in the region which has the Districts at the heart of it. The most important aspect, is that we believe that we have a system in place now that will help us retain young rugby players at an age where, unfortunately, many tend to drift away from the game for a whole host of reasons, and will allow us to identify easier those late developers who under the existing system may have been lost to us.
“The District set-up has always played a hugely important role in the development of young players, particularly up to U16 level. We have made changes to our talent ID systems, and how we operate our age-grade teams, to work closely with the Districts and put the emphasis on the importance of District rugby. At U16 level, which is the entry point to Ospreys Rugby for young players, we’ve already made it clear this season that if any players aren’t involved for the region then they go back to the District to train and play. We’ve made it clear that if they don’t, then they won’t be in contention for next time.
“The problem you get moving from U16’s to U18’s, is that some boys don’t make the initial step up because they are younger. It’s a big age-group, two years can make a big difference, and there’s also the eligibility difference; At under 16 it’s based on the school year, and runs from September 1st, but at under 18’s the eligibility starts from January 1st.
“For the boys who don’t make it straight into the under-18s level, the Districts have agreed to play at U17 level. It provides a safety net, it gives them somewhere to go and keeps them playing instead of thinking that there’s nowhere for them to go and they lose interest, as does happen. They’ll have somewhere to show what they can do, and hopefully, will continue to improve, and by the time they come around to the second year of U18’s they’ll be good enough to be involved.”
Millward insists that the new set-up will be advantageous to the Districts, as well as the Ospreys, with a clear pathway now showing that the Districts feed directly through to the region at age grade level, which will give them more credibility in the eyes of the clubs. He concedes that the Ospreys view of the regional/District relationship may not be the same as their rivals, but he says it’s what works for the Ospreys:
“I don’t think the other regions share our view of the District rugby system, but that’s not our concern. I think there are worries that the quality of coaching isn’t good enough. That’s the wrong attitude to have though, if that’s the belief, you have to work with the system to improve things. Instead of saying the coaching isn’t good enough, make it better; make the District sides part of the coaching pathway as well. If you get better coaches at that level then you get better players, which raises the standard across the board. The obvious knock on is that we will have a wider pool of quality young players in the region.
“What is clear, is that we historically lose players around this age, for whatever reason, some lose interest and others maybe become disillusioned at not ‘making it’ and find their rugby career starts to drift. The idea behind this is that if they are still playing, there’s a safety net to catch them. The reality is that the boys normally identified as U20 players tend to be playing premiership rugby already, but the question is, where does the late developer come through?
“There’s a massive group of players just above U18 rugby, who under the existing system, we won’t know who or where they are because they just drift off to do their own thing if they aren’t identified as U20 players. I had a meeting with the Districts to discuss the way forward on that how do we ensure that there is an ‘Ospreys U20 group’ of players like this. The Premiership players, the Academy players, wouldn’t be involved, this is for the next tier, the players just below that group.
“The way forward for selection for the Ospreys U20’s will be that they play for the Districts from September to Christmas, which will act as the selection window for an Ospreys U20 programme, which will run January to the end of the season, with four or five games, allowing us to have a good look at these guys.
“The emphasis is that the only way into the new look Ospreys U20’s is via the Districts. The club’s will supply the District with players, and the District then supplies the region. It’s the only way forward, and whatever we can do to improve the standing of the District set-up, that’s what we need to do.
“At secondary school level, the Districts are all strong, and are a recognised part of the player development pathway. What we want to do now is ensure that they remain a central element of the player and coaching development pathway between under-16’s and the new-look U20’s.”
With the Ospreys running U16, U18 and from next season, U20 sides, and the Districts operating now at U17 and U19, Millward argues that the end result will be a bigger pool of players coming through to represent not only the Ospreys in future seasons, but also, the top clubs in the region. He added:
“From a talent ID point of view, it’s nigh on impossible to cover the number of games being played week-in, week out, if there is no central place for these boys to come together. It’s important that we get the better players playing together at district level, and we can go from there. It’s a clear pathway for the players, if they have any ambition of playing regional representative rugby at U20, it’s club, Districts, region, in that order.
“Ultimately, not only will we have better players at U20 level, what we are creating is a bigger pool of quality players to come through at senior level. If that isn’t to be at the region in the long term, it will still be benefiting our teams in the Premiership or at Division One. They are the next generation of semi-pro players for local clubs, and with a larger pool of quality players, the rugby community in Ospreylia as a whole stands to benefit from this new structure.”