This season we have seen a number of Academy players feature for the first team, including the likes of Jack Wallace, Christian Wade, Sam Jones, Joe Launchbury, Jonah Holmes, Joe Burton, Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola. Many of these players and others have also been capped at International age group level – Jack Wallace, Christian Wade, Sam Jones, Joe Launchbury, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Jonah Homles at U20s; Ant Brennan and Sam Northcote Green at U19s; Nathan Morris, Alec Hepburn, Mitchell Tamiau and Gus Jones at U18s; Dave Hughes at U17s and Tom Howe, Josh Poole and Alex Lungberg at U16s.
The Academy Apprenticeship has once again come through strongly at the end of the season, recording wins against Exeter and Truro. Many first year students have been involved with the team this year, so this strong finish bodes well for 2011/12.
The AASE programme moves to Henley College next season and looks set to take off and move to another level over the next few seasons. Much individual success has already been achieved to date with International U18 age group players in Ant Brennan (also U19s) and Mitch Tamiau and with Dave Hughes at England U17 age group level. Clearly, through the Academy Apprenticeship staff, consisting of Mark Lock, Ian Taplin, Keir Wenham Flatt and Helen O’Leary, the Academy Apprenticeship is well served. When the move to Henley College is completed, by season 2012/13, this development pathway will be the best in the country for aspiring 16 to 18 year olds in the local region.
With the season rapidly drawing to a close we caught up with Rob Smith, Academy Manager, to find out about the success of the London Wasps Academy setup.
Could you give us a brief overview of how the Academy is structured?
The Academy has three levels starting at U13 age band through to 24yrs, although players can enter at any stage. The levels are School of Rugby (SOR) U13 to U16, Elite Player Development Group (EPDG) U15 to U18 and England Academy Player (EAP) U16 to 24yrs. There is some overlap dependent on ability and/or stage of individual player development. On top of this, and integrated within these groups, we run an Academy Apprenticeship (AASE) for players age 16 to 18yrs. The Academy Apprenticeship differs from the other Academy groups as the players involved must attend the nominated school (which means leaving their current school) to study their chosen academic subjects. This is currently this is Twyford High School but from next season, 2011/12, the transfer of the Academy Apprenticeship to Henley College will begin. These groupings function throughout three counties which have been designated via the RFU/CLUB Academy Licence Agreement as catchment areas – the London Wasps designed counties are Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Middlesex. The numbers of players in total within these groups across all our county regions are approximately – SOR 200 – EPDG 60 – EAP 15 – AASE 26. Players involved within these groups are effectively in a talent identification progress over a long period but also receive core skill development training and conditioning and physical development guidance and training. The Academy does not run a team week in week out but do occasionally play a fixture at U15 and U17 age band levels. The AASE students do operate as a team playing fixtures in the Southern AASE league conference. Players from all development streams are nominated for inclusion into South East England Academy squads at various age bands, linking with the best/better players from the other SE Academies.
Who are the personnel involved in the running of the Academy?
I head up the Academy as Academy Manager with Chris Lloyd as my Assistant Manager with special responsibility for the Middlesex region. Ian Taplin is also Assistant Manager with special responsibility for conditioning and player physical development across all regions. Mark Lock is the Academy Apprenticeship Manager with special responsibility for recruitment, match fixtures and player development within the AASE squad. We are very fortunate also to have three excellent SOR Honorary Managers who organise the groups throughout our regions – Bob Lawless (Middlesex), Jerry Bignell (Buckinghamshire) and Kevin Robinson (Oxfordshire).
Who have been the success stories of the Academy this season?
In terms of goals and targets for this season all of our players have been successful and progressed to the performance levels expected levels. This season the Academy have had a heavy representation within the 1st XV team squad with, Jack Wallace, Christian Wade, Jonah Holmes, Joe Launchbury, Sam Jones, Elliot Daly, Billy Vunipola, Tom Lindsay and Joe Burton performing at senior level with some distinction. Further to this Jack Wallace, Christian Wade, Jonah Holmes, Elliot Daly, Sam Jones and Billy Vunipola have been involved with England U20s in their preparation and matches for the Junior World Cup in Italy June 2011. At the lower age bands we a have again enjoyed huge success in terms of numbers representing the England squads from U16 to U19 age bands. In fact this has been the highest representation we have achieved and confirms how fortunate we are to be working in our regions, which over the past six years have contributed to a representation at International level double that of any other Academy base.
How encouraging is it to have so many players representing England throughout the age groups?
It is always pleasing to see the player we have identified and are working with being selected by others at International level. This of course gives the individual a huge motivational boost but equally it also boosts the whole Academy group and staff. However the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the players put on a Wasps shirt in earnest at senior level.
The AASE academy is set to move to Henley. How will this impact the setup?
The AASE development stream is moving to The Henley College as of next season. However this transfer will take two years to complete, so next season we will have split sites – Twyford High School and Henley College. The team will be playing as Henley College in the Southern Conference AASE league and staff will be travelling between the two sites on a regular basis throughout the season. Already we have been overwhelmed by the interest in the AASE programme with recruitment into Henley College, I think it is a more natural fit within our current county catchment regions and hence the overall Academy development operating areas.
What do you think could improve about the way that the Academy operates?
When it comes to development, there is always room from additional tools, this boils down to extra staff, resource and/or facilities. The AASE programme for 16 to 18s is just about as good as it gets in terms of staff having the available time to work with the players and having the control over the players programmes. With extra resource the programme could broaden and this of course would improve the overall development, but would this be cost effective because extra here is lost elsewhere – the AASE programme is already producing players into the EAP level Academy and viewed successful with Will Robinson and Mitchell Tamiau making the step next season. In the wider Academy SOR, EPDG level we are always having to cope with the players other commitments at school and clubs which often slows down development, makes the player unavailable and impacts progress. I suppose the perfect scenario for a players rugby development would be to have an AASE programme starting at 13 and finishing around 20. However, we compete very well at present in comparison to some well or better resourced Academies, extra resource for the sake of it is not the answer, it is the environment which is key – having an environment which inspires and motivates players, one in which they enjoy their work, work hard and respect the others around them. My Academy staff understand this and work hard to achieve this so this is what we strive to maintain and improve, which in turn does improve the overall Academy process.
How do you find the players who then become part of the Academy? How does your team identify talent?
The players mostly come through the SOR , EPDG pathway. That is they are initially nominated to the SOR for assessment by their school or club and enter the Academy process via this route. However some will come via our watching, scouting programme when Academy staff get out to view school, club and county matches. Equally, we do have direct nominations come to us and sometimes follow up with a viewing and an invite into the programme. The identification process continues after the initial invite into the programme, we know the players can perform well and has good skills etc, hence the invite, but once they are involved we need to learn more about the player in terms of emotional intellect – do they have a good team dynamic , are they driven, competitive individuals, are they coachable, do they have a strong values in line with Wasps etc….these are the final criteria for invitation into the top end Academy EAP.
What would be your advice to any aspiring rugby player?
You need to continually challenge yourself in the level of rugby you play and when you train. Focus on your performance not on results. If you are the best be better. I often receive messages from players requesting an invite into the Academy. They tell me the team they play for has won all its games and they have score ‘x’ amount of tries – well this actually tells me they play either in a very good team or for a team that has a weak fixture list but nothing about them as a player. It is satisfying to score tries but again tries are made by team work and are not a decisive assessment of how you play.
Wasps is well known for the success of our Academy which has produced so much talent down the years - what makes ours stand out?
Well we have outperformed others and been stand out in terms of numbers into representative squads and those progressing into senior status, this I believe is down to the working environment which although functional in appearance provides great focus on achievement on importance of work ethic and provides challenging performance levels at training and match play for players and staff.
This year in particular seems to have turned up a few gems – Elliot Daly, Billy Vunipola, Tom Lindsay, Christian Wade, Sam Jones etc. - do you think some of these have the potential to go all the way?
If ‘all the way’ means to senior International level then definitely, most if not all should aspire to this. Selection at the top end as with all selection is about opinion, usually of one person, so at this level it cannot be guaranteed, however I would most certainly say these guys will be in the “selection hat” indeed some have already experience close to a full cap – Tom Lindsay England Saxons by age 23 is a huge achievement. However most importantly for all these players should be to gain an established Premiership 1st XV starting role with Wasps – the representative call ups will follow when this has been achieved.