Rugby: What will happen to the likely lads?

Jonathan Davies argues that the clubs cannot afford to keep neglecting young talent
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The Independent Online
British rugby is not exactly bulging with exciting young players at the moment and there don't seem to be many teenaged prospects in the pipeline, either. I am sure they are out there somewhere but taking care of emerging talent does not appear to be a priority in the game.

I was at the Welsh Rugby Writers' dinner last week when the Cardiff centre Leigh Davies received the Lloyd Lewis Award for being elected man of the match in the Swalec Cup final against Swansea in May. Leigh is 20 years of age and already an international and exceptionally good player. But there aren't too many of his age likely to be competing for awards this season.

We have got one or two other likely lads in Wales. Pontypridd have Kevin Morgan and Gareth Wyatt, and young Lee Jarvis is kicking points like a veteran for Cardiff, but they are thin on the ground. It's no better in England. Matt Perry at Bath is an obvious prospect and the Wasps winger Paul Sampson has already made an impressive arrival in the big time.

The England coach Clive Woodward has called up a couple of rookies to sample the squad atmosphere but I seem to recall that only a few years ago we had a far greater number of youngsters to get excited about.

Not only that, I fear that clubs are not spending enough time and trouble nurturing young talent and preparing them properly for a professional future. This is, perhaps, an obvious result of the sudden arrival of professionalism and the need for clubs to improve their squads with the intent of making an immediate impact. The urgency for quick success saw them go for experience and well-proven ability. It was a natural reaction which led to a lot of panic buying.

Obviously, some younger players were snapped up, but I suspect that they were seen as an investment, or it was done to stop rival clubs signing them, and they have disappeared into the wrong end of the squads with opportunities for only a few games. This process has been repeated down through the leagues.

Most affected were the players aged around the late teens or early twenties who are now in the top squads but who are also facing a hard time trying to make their mark among the established stars and high-profile imports. They are the first of the young full-time professionals and I wonder what the future holds for them.

When full-time rugby careers became legal it was the players from the middle and older age groups who benefited most. The over-thirties were suddenly offered a golden twilight to their careers while those in their mid to late twenties were either able to postpone their off-field activities or blend them into their playing duties.

For a young player who had not sorted himself out a career outside rugby it must have seemed like heaven. It probably still does, with nothing else to do but play rugby. But clubs are still inclined to select the tried and trusted for big games. With the number of reserve games being reduced or cut out altogether, this means our younger players are having a problem proving themselves.

Unless rugby begins to take this situation seriously the promising 16- to 18-year-old will soon be heading for the same bottleneck and the supply of home-grown talent will become a trickle.

It calls for the unions to organise some sort of academy system, maybe in conjunction with the universities, in which our brighter prospects can play and train together away from the frantic work of the club squads.

They could be reclaimed by their clubs when necessary but they would spend the rest of the time working on their weak points and learning how to be professionals. So many of our kids are absolutely clueless on how to act when meeting sponsors or dealing with the media.

The rugby union professionals of the future must not only make the most of their talents on the field, they have to accept responsibility on behalf of themselves, their clubs and their individual and club sponsors. If they can do that then the world is their oyster and the game will benefit. But we're not even beginning to make that future come true for them.