The plans have been carefully crafted over the past 18 months and have involved extensive consultation with all relevant parties – the Community Game, Welsh Schools, Regions, Universities and departments across the WRU.
On the men’s side there has been in-depth research undertaken on needs of stakeholders at all levels and the desire is to create a system that meets the ever-changing needs of the modern game
“There has been a recognition by everyone in the game that to be successful long-term we are going to have to look at the way we operate and be more collaborative across the board. One of those key areas is the pathway for our players,” said interim WRU performance manager, Huw Bevan.
“Over the past 18 months to two years, the WRU has undertaken a complete review of the pathway system. It hasn’t just been about the academies and the top end of our game, but has involved looking at a system that can be built up over a 10–year period.
“The entry point will be 14, through to the professional game exit point of 23-24. This is not going to be a short–term fix, we are trying to find a long-term solution to this problem.
“We’ve closely examined what we’ve been doing in the past and at what we feel is going to enable us to be more successful. It’s going to take a while, and there will be no immediate fix – we can’t just put sticky plasters on the issues we’re currently facing.”
The review, led by John Alder and Chris Ower in conjunction with Geraint John’s community rugby department, has outlined three key stages in the pathway:
14-16 The Talent Discovery phase16-18 The Development phase 18-23 The Performance phase
“The first phase, between 14-16, is going to be development focused, although there will be a competitive element. We want to develop as many players as we can within that talent pool,” added Bevan.
“From there the players will feed into the 16-18 phase ,which we are calling the talent development phase. Here they start moving into the junior academy system supported by the regions.
“A lot of them will be engaged in the National Schools & Colleges League, which is being revamped. This league is really important and it is vitally important we get the right balance between rugby performance and academic achievement.
“From 18-24, the players will be in the senior academy getting a full service from the regions. That’s when we’ll be looking to create opportunities for these players to be competitive at regional and international level.
“Our new strapline is ‘More Players. Better Players’ and it’s very important we not only create a great pool of talent for the professional game, but also retain players within the community game.
“We’ll develop them and create entry points for them within the pathway. At the exit point out of the performance system we will still need to support and encourage them, rather than simply discarding them.
“Hopefully, because of the positive experience they’ve had through the development period they will then be retained in the community game.”
Encouragingly, the WRU has recently recorded the highest number of registered players at 13 and 14 since records began 10 years ago. The challenge is to hone the talent coming through.
“We need to ensure we’re delivering a high–quality product. With the academies, we are looking at introducing a new academy licence system,” said Bevan.
“This is currently being finalised with the Professional Rugby Board and will cover staffing, quality of the programme, time requirements, the support they get and coaching. A certain amount of money will be committed to player contracts at senior academy level and a certain amount will need to be committed to providing the services and staffing to support the programme.
“On top of that we also need to review what we are doing to ensure that what we are delivering is up to scratch. There are areas of improvement which are needed, but we need the WRU needs to lead the way.
“The same principle is being applied to the Schools & Colleges League. We’re looking to people to deliver a certain level of quality and to be accountable for the quality of the programme they deliver.
“Our approach is to be collaborative. We are all in this together and we must all do better together – the goal is to provide a better service than in the past and we need to be better at maximising our resources.”
As well as changes to the academy licence with the Regions, the Dewar Shield is all set to change from an U15 to U16 tournament next season. Three more teams are ready to be invited to join the National Schools & Colleges League to create two leagues of eight sides for the 2023-24 tournament and there are on-going discussions with the universities across Wales to create even stronger links with their rugby programmes.
But the biggest change of all could come in the ‘second tier’ of Welsh rugby from 2024. The aim is to provide a stronger vehicle for players in the ‘Performance Phase’ to gain experience as they prepare to make the step up into the URC and Europe.
“We need a vehicle to develop the highest potential rugby players to bridge the gap between the academies, the regional, and international game. This will sit between the top end of the community game and the URC,” explained Bevan.
“There’s been an enormous amount of work done with regards to that, and we are pretty close. It has been another collaborative project between the WRU, the WRU’s community department, the performance department, the regions, and the Premiership clubs themselves.
“It’s not over the line yet although we are pretty close to delivering something which will deliver what our primary purpose is – creating a tournament in which our high–performance players get an opportunity to compete at an intensity that is going to prepare them for the next step.
“Whatever the format of our new competition is going to be, North Wales is going to be an integral part of it. This is a hot bed of rugby activity in Wales, especially in the women’s and girl’s game. The WRU has built up a hugely positive relationship with Conwy council and we hope to add to that.
“In order to be competitive at the final stages of the URC and in Europe the Regions need to have players who are capable of playing international rugby. Our development programme needs to be at a standard which is capable of producing high–quality individuals that will enable both Wales and the regions to be more successful.
“What I can’t stress enough is that this isn’t going to be a quick fix. It’s going to take time and we are going to have to work at it.
“The first thing we need is sustainable Regional teams. Then we have to look at how we underpin the pathways to make sure we are operating at a level that delivers quality players.”
THE WOMEN’S GAME
On the women’s front, the game has gone from strength to strength in Wales since the introduction of professional contracts. The expectation is the women’s game will continue to grow and eventually deliver more sponsorship and revenue.
“We need to continue to support the women’s game and we are dedicated to doing that. Ioan Cunningham and his staff have done a great job at the top end of the game and we are looking to contract more players ahead of the WXV tournament in New Zealand later this year,” added Bevan. “Underneath that we need to build a pathway to make the top end sustainable. Currently, we don’t have a sufficient player pool to make us successful over a long period of time. We have to look at ways of improving our strength in depth.
“We are looking at setting up a Women’s and Girl’s Rugby Strategy Group from departments across the WRU and creating a performance plan to take us through to the 2029 World Cup. We want to examine ways that we can meet our targets, which are to potentially become a semi-finalist at that tournament.
“We are looking to do all this in time for when the new WRU Board member who will have special responsibility for the women’s game is installed. We want to be able to present here with the current situation, outlining everyone we’ve done across the community game, the performance pathway, and in commercial.
“Then we will be in good shape to finalise our strategy with her moving forward. That is going to be crucial, along with all the associated costs. What do we need to do to make us successful at the 2029 World Cup and beyond.
“We are working from the top down at the moment and one of the most exciting initiatives has been the creation of three Player Development Centres, which will be focusing on girls between 17-24. The ambition is to role these programmes out across Wales so that by 2026 no girl with high potential is more than 60 minutes away from one of the centres.
“The Celtic Challenge was a pilot programme with only one team last season, but in 2023-24 we will have two. This is in partnership with World Rugby and will include two teams from both Ireland and Scotland.
“The aim is to bridge the big gap between club rugby in Wales and the international stage. We also have a pilot scheme going on with six schools and colleges to create a competitive league to underpin all this work in conjunction with doing more work on the community league system.”