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Reserve League Farce Times Article
Cookie (IP Logged)
17 April, 2018 10:39
Owen Slot

The latest news, last night, was that Gloucester’s A League game against Harlequins had to be cancelled because Gloucester were short on fully fit front-row forwards. If you had been watching this space, the cancellation would not have surprised you. Not remotely.

Gloucester United, the club’s second XV, are also yet to fulfil their fixture against Saracens Storm that was postponed two weeks ago. They completed their match against Bath last Monday but only after they had borrowed a pair of front rowers from Cinderford, the nearby club in National League Two South.

This isn’t a column about a Gloucester player shortage though. It is about a shortage throughout the A League. More to the point, it is about one of the more epic pieces of management failures in the 20 years since the game went professional. The A League has been an embarrassment, nothing but.

Before yesterday’s cancellation there had been 66 games in the A League. Of those 66, five had been cancelled and 31 had been postponed. In other words, there was more chance that a game would be off than on.

In an effort to fulfil these fixtures clubs found themselves having to recruit players who didn’t play for them. Gloucester recruiting from Cinderford was no rarity. Professional clubs would be ringing round amateur players, asking them if they fancied a game. Some clubs have been so short on numbers that only about half of the players that represented them in A League games were their players. To make up numbers, one club had to stick one of their press officers on the bench.

Yes, this is embarrassing. A bit of a joke. The scorelines are not much better.

Wasps beat Sale Jets 70-12, but Northampton Wanderers beat Wasps 75-26. There are huge disparities here, massive thrashings every week according to who has strength in depth and who is short and having to phone round to fill a team.

The most damning aspect of it all is that the senior games in the Aviva Premiership are played at the weekend and A League games are often on a Monday and large numbers of players have been asked to double up; Saturday and Monday. More often than not, they have been a replacement in one game and then played in the other. How many times has this happened? More than 200 times this season. Is this really a game that cares about welfare? Should two games in three days even be legal? How and why has this nonsense been allowed to happen?

At this point, rewind a fortnight, to the Wellington Festival, an annual convention of the best up-and-coming players in the country. I attended one day and it looked brilliant: 420 under-16 boys, handpicked by their academies, in residence for a five-day camp.

Until last year, this was a largely competitive event because a squad would be picked at the end of it to form the England Under-16 side: the youngest England age-grade team. Yet the development specialists scrapped this; they concluded that being the best 16-year-old was not an indicator of whether you would develop into a senior England player.

So they changed it. The festival is now all about development. A lot of work had been done forecasting how the game will change and encouraging the boys to play to it. In the future, the boys were informed, there will be greater ball-in-play time, more switches from attack to defence and back again, it will be less formulaic, more adaptability is required — at least that was the thinking and game rules were continually changing to force the boys to think fast and play to them.

Impressive? Yes. Do England develop successful teams at under-18 and under-20 levels? This hasn’t been a great year, but on the whole, yes.

The question, though, is what happens next? After going through the age grades, the development process must continue and that happens largely through playing. The more games you play, the more decisions you have to make, the better you develop.

This, however, is where too many players stall. They go through the development system and hope to play in the big boys’ games with their professional clubs, but the clubs feel they are not ready yet, or they are loathe to take a chance. Either way, the bright young players stop getting enough game time.

In the Six Nations, the eye-catching breakthrough players were all Irish: James Ryan, Dan Leavy and Jordan Larmour. And just when it seems that England’s youngsters are falling behind, the Celts are about to take another step forward. They too realise that another development level is required so a Pro14 under-23 competition will begin next season. Good idea.

What has long happened in England is the best young players at the Premiership clubs are loaned to local clubs in the Championship or even lower. Sam Simmonds, for instance, was allowed to learn and mature at Cornish Pirates before Exeter Chiefs felt that he was ready for the top tier. Simmonds is proof that this can work.

So last year, the RFU tried to encourage more of this by formalising the concept of dual-registered players. That was a good idea too, but the Premiership clubs responded with one of their own: an expanded A League, more games for the up-and-comers, more opportunity. This was also a decent idea; in practice it has been a disaster.

Apart from Exeter, the clubs are all losing money. At the same time, players’ wages are rising and the salary cap is not, and so the result is that squad sizes are being reduced. At the very time when squad sizes are getting smaller, the clubs suddenly decided they could run two teams regularly rather than one.

Two teams require more players, more coaches, more physios, more doctors, more money, and means more debt. And, thus far, more cancelled games for the very players who need them.

Can the A League work? If you are Exeter, then yes. As with so much, Exeter are the model club. They have the advantage of a huge recruiting area, a rugby heartland with no Premiership rivals close by. They therefore get lots of talent and they farm it well. Last week, they announced the biggest ever intake of academy boys to be given professional contracts; they took 13, most clubs each year take three or four. If all the clubs can follow the model, then the expanded A League could work. If only.

The A League? More dual registrations? An under-23 competition like the Pro14? They all have their pros and cons.

One of them needs to be made to work. For now, the clubs have a responsibility to address reality and acknowledge that the A League does not.

 
Re: Reserve League Farce Times Article
T-Bone (IP Logged)
17 April, 2018 10:52
Interesting article. This year does seem to have been far worse than previous years. I know we often have some guest players, coaches on the bench, reserves from Saturday starting, etc, but from what I can recall, before this season, there haven't been that many cancellations and we ususally put out a side that is recognisably Quins (unlike the Prem 7s which is a joke).

I know some other teams struggle much more, or care much less about it.

He comments that they doubled the numbers of games this year, but wasn't that just reversing the decision to stop home and away legs a few years ago?

I do think that dual registration is probably a better chance for players to develop and get game time than the A league, but think the A league is still valuable, not just for development, but for keeping squad players match fit, for players returning from injury and for giving the younger players a chance to learn from more senior players in a match situation.

 
Re: Reserve League Farce Times Article
fandg2 (IP Logged)
17 April, 2018 12:57
Yep good article (although the England U16s bit must have changed in recent years from 5-6 years ago).

For me it highlights most of the conundrums with no easy fix but for me the easiest answer is to allow uncontested scrums from the start if required. Might be controversial but both Quins Exeter A game and Gloucester games were down to front row unavailability. At the end of the day the scrum is only a way to restart the game and surely better to fullfil the fixture in an already congested season and give the players a chance to play rather than try and reschedule or not play the game at all. Would readily allow guest players to participate more safely

Also always thought Tuesday/Wednesday was a better day for A games rather than Monday as there's nearly always a few players involved in both, certainly later in the season as injuries take their toll on the squads

 
Re: Reserve League Farce Times Article
T-Bone (IP Logged)
17 April, 2018 13:56
Quote:
fandg2
Yep good article (although the England U16s bit must have changed in recent years from 5-6 years ago).
For me it highlights most of the conundrums with no easy fix but for me the easiest answer is to allow uncontested scrums from the start if required. Might be controversial but both Quins Exeter A game and Gloucester games were down to front row unavailability. At the end of the day the scrum is only a way to restart the game and surely better to fullfil the fixture in an already congested season and give the players a chance to play rather than try and reschedule or not play the game at all. Would readily allow guest players to participate more safely

Also always thought Tuesday/Wednesday was a better day for A games rather than Monday as there's nearly always a few players involved in both, certainly later in the season as injuries take their toll on the squads

Very good idea about the uncontested actually. Not sure it would harm their development that much to miss a few live scrummaging sessions, and A league shouldn't be about grinding out wins by demolishing weaker scrums, especially when it's largely guess work anyway


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