RFU Council meetings are all day affairs with a lot of business to get through and there is usually at least one presentation about some aspect of the game. Today Friday 11 February) we heard from Stuart Lancaster, England Academies Manager and England Saxons Coach, about his work and it was one of the most interesting presentations I had heard in a while. A few years ago Stuart was a PE teacher in Yorkshire but he got the job of Academy coach for Leeds Tykes, then became Director of Rugby at Leeds Carnegie before taking on his current role with the RFU.
There is an increasing number of players in each Premiership side that are home grown and nurtured through the Academy system and these are the players that will fill England teams at U18 and U20, the Saxons and the senior national side. A great example of that was Alex Corbisiero being called into the England team to replace Andrew Sheridan after his injury, not as a replacement but as a starting player. Alex has graduated through the Academy system playing in the age grade sides then for the Saxons in the past two weeks. Some will argue that throwing Alex into the game against one of he best scrummagers in the world in Castrogiovanni is a risk, but his progress, along with others in the Academy system, has been closely watched and the England coaches know exactly what he is capable of.
It is no coincidence that England’s performances have been improving over the past half-a-dozen games or so. With the advent of the Rugby World Cup the game is in a four-year cycle and teams are aiming to peak for the competition. Some teams peak too early, witness New Zealand’s dominance in the past in between World Cups and their failure to win one since 1987, but England seem to be on target to be at their best when this year’s tournament starts in September.
Ben Youngs, Danny Care, and Courtenay Lawes are just a few of the payers that have come through the Academy system and it was really interesting to hear from Stuart what he thought the England team would look like in for the 2015 World Cup. Players have already been identified that will be the national stars of the future and although there are some current England players in there, many are playing in Academies and have turned out for the U18s or U20s. Have a look at the ages of some of the Premiership players and there are more 18, 19 and 20 year olds than ever before.
There is a lot of future planning going on which is good to see. Between the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups England will have 42 international games, 42 chances to to get the squad right to give us the best chance of winning the World Cup in England. Management already know who will be retiring from international rugby and who is likely to step up to take their places. By the time the 2015 World Cup comes around the squad will have a total of around 600 caps with an average age of 26.
Another interesting point was about how we play the game in this country. At the last two or three U20 World Cups the England side was probably the fittest team, but the New Zealand and Australian sides had much better basic skills. Should we really be getting our players to ruck, maul, scrum and line-out at nine years old or should we be spending longer on the key elements of running, passing and catching and coaching how to create space?
Stuart also explained the basic game premise of making the opposition defence move about so that you are not always confronted with a solid defensive wall. Next time you watch England, spend some time watching how quickly they align at each phase of play to try to exploit any space created by moving the defensive line around.
I found it fascinating and I will be watching England’s age-grade and adult games with new eyes.