“We regularly have 25 of the 32 attend training and fixtures. In order to accommodate those numbers and to give everyone plenty of game time... a “game of three halves” format gives just that.”
YOUTH RUGBY AT LONDON WELSH – IT’S ALL ABOUT NUMBERS
As I come to the halfway point of my 14th season of coaching at London Welsh I have been reflecting on my time at Old Deer Park and the challenges of Youth Rugby, not just at our club, but across South West London, in the Herts and Middlesex Leagues, and I guess, across the country. In short it’s all about the numbers.
MY JOURNEY IN MINI RUGBY
As part of the Taffia in Kingston, my wife Rachel started bringing my elder son Tomos to under 6 training at Old Deer Park. We are so fortunate at this club to have the amazing Seb Scotney as a permanent fixture at this introductory age, not only to give consistency and empathetic, enjoyable coaching to boys and girls seemingly just out of nappies, but also for the way he identifies the parents who are likely to be willing and able to lead the age group as they enter under 7s and beyond. I had not been involved in rugby for a couple of years: bad knees, concussion and work had forced me to hang up my boots, and to be honest, I thought my time as an active participant in the game had come to an end. But towards the end of that initial season I attended a couple of sessions and saw the fun that those kids were having.
On the first Sunday in September 2005, a week after our second son Owen, was born, I took Tomos along to Grey Court School for the new season. Another club legend, Mike Talbot had been anointed by Seb to take under 7s. Having been a forward, I thought that whilst I might not know a great deal about all the finer points of handling and back play, I surely knew more than a bunch of six year olds. Being a parent I knew I could make myself useful acting as a bollard and marshalling eager and excitable kids, and rather than try to read the Sunday papers on the touchline in the wind and rain, it would be fun for me to run around with Tomos and his mates. At the end of that session Mike gave me the water bottles to take home and refill for the following week. Then a couple of weeks later he gave me and another Dad a London Welsh training tracksuit each. Smart move. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had been brought into the fold and was to start one of the best experiences of my life.
I coached Tomos’ age group until under their final season in mini-rugby, adding a couple of coaching and refereeing qualifications along the way. At the beginning of that u12 season, my younger son Owen was being being introduced to the magic of scoring tries with Seb. I figured that Tomos had had a lot of my time, so I announced at the beginning of that year that I would not go into youth rugby with Tomos, and would come back down the age groups to help with Owen’s under 7 year. Andy Jones, who had recently joined the club as an Occie at the persuasion of Geoff Malvisi, took on the mantle of leading Tomos’ squad. Andy, Geoff, Mike and David Brunsdon and a host of others were able to lead that squad to be the first to complete an under 15 age group for four seasons. Unfortunately they didn’t quite make it through their under 16 season due to the vicious cycle of low numbers leading to cancelled fixtures and cancelled fixtures leading to boys drifting away from London Welsh. But the age group below them, managed by Andy Stitson, were running two full squads and took their team right through to under 18s and, for some lads even further. I realised that youth rugby is all about numbers. I asked Stits what was the secret of their success. He highlighted three key points: non-Dad coaching, midweek training and a great social scene culminating in the annual tour. Having this strong foundation had allowed them to be the club where four or five boys chose to come as their own sides started to fold through lack of numbers. I filed this advice away for future reference…
MY JOURNEY IN YOUTH RUGBY
Roll on six years and I was leading Owen and his pals into youth rugby in their under 13 year. We had plenty of players on the books. 35 boys (the girls we had in our squad frustratingly having to stop playing mixed rugby at under 12 – a theme for future reflection perhaps) and 13-a-side meant we were able to field two sides. Coaching two teams cannot be done by one person, and with Stits’ advice of “Numbers!” ringing in my ears, over the years we had built up a strong group of dedicated volunteers to lead our group: Miranda Wicking on team management and first aid, James Mayer, Jonathan Howlett, John Rasmussen, Brendan McWeeney, Sean Alleyne, Mike Manna, Marty McCarthy, Martin Harrison, Adrian Davies, Simon Beer, Simon Humphreys, Steven Lowry and too many others to mention, all contributed significant time and expertise. OK so they weren’t non-Dad coaches, but the club offered a midweek skills academy session and we had established a strong tradition of touring, thanks in large part to Mike Amey, Simon Beer, Brendan and Miranda.
We had fun in our first forays into the Herts and Middlesex Leagues. An opportunity to make the boys feel special about those fixtures by putting on a collar and tie, travelling to new clubs and to host those clubs at Old Deer Park. We had a good season, but I made some observations along the way. Our A team was too strong for its pool. We were railroading a number of clubs. Scoring a try a minute in the first 5 minutes might seem exciting, but nobody on either side is really going to learn anything, and to be on the receiving end of such a match is extremely demoralising. Our B team was well matched in its pool and had some thrillingly close matches, but on occasions our opponents were barely able to scrape together a full side, and we had a couple of fixtures cancelled through lack of numbers. More food for thought.
As we approached this under 14 season, I hoped that we would still be able to field two teams. However the reality was different. We lost a few players, some to boarding school, some moving away (upside: future touring venues!), some focussing on other sports, some just deciding that getting up on a Sunday for rugby just wasn’t for them. Also a number of coaches felt similar to me a few years previously, that they wanted to spend time with their other children in the younger age groups. Our numbers currently run at 31 (scrub that, 32 as we had a new recruit this Sunday – welcome William!). With roughly 10% unavailable for selection on any given weekend due to injury, school commitments, or lunch with Mamgu, we were just not going to be able to field two sides. I feared that our numbers could quickly drop from 31 to much lower if we could not give quality game time and an enjoyable experience to all players.
NUMBERS – MY MISSION STATEMENT
Mission statements and children’s rugby might seem a bit over the top, but in order to continue to receive the support of players and parents I think it is important to be transparent about what you stand for. It would be great to be able to say in future years that we produced the next Kyle Sinckler, the current England tight head prop who came up through the ranks at Battersea Ironsides, but in order to do that a club needs to keep children in the game. It is acknowledged that rugby is a late development game. Most of the rugby unions recognise this and have introduced a number of adaptations to the laws to encourage late specialisation of players to allow them to develop a well-rounded set of core skills. So here is my mission statement:
“To deliver as many players as possible into adult rugby with great all-round skills and a love of the game that they wish to contribute of their own volition in whatever capacity and at whatever level they can.”
I know it’s possibly a bit long-winded, but the process of writing it down and saying it over and again to anyone who will listen makes me think that I have captured the essence.
The key to it all is NUMBERS.
If we can’t field 15 players (or more likely 18 players) on a Sunday then we will struggle to meet fixtures and struggle to retain players. Equally if we have many players, but we can’t find meaningful fixtures for them, then they are likely to drift away from the club, and perhaps from the sport overall. Similarly if our opposition teams are struggling for numbers then the effect is the same: fewer interesting and meaningful matches for our team, who lose interest and drift away. Lord know teenage boys are a feckless breed, and have so many alternative activities competing for their time, I feel we have to provide a quality experience to keep them coming back.
YOUTH RUGBY AT LONDON WELSH
So what have we done about this at London Welsh?
Well firstly, we in the U14s have reduced the focus on the league structure. I can hear the sighs of some readers – “here we go, non-competitive rugby, it goes against the competitive nature of the game, etc” but hear me out.
We regularly have 25 of the 32 attend training and fixtures. In order to accommodate those numbers and to give everyone plenty of game time. I have proposed a “game of three halves” format: three twenty minutes sessions in a match. That way we can give the vast majority two “halves” of rugby.
Secondly some people are put off by the travel time involved for an 11 o’clock kick off at Royston (very near to being Cambridge!) and the ensuing journey back around a clogged North Circular. So let’s play all the local clubs over whom we can throw a blanket from Old Deer Park. Even if we kick off at 11:30, lads can be breaking bread with their grandparents by 1:30.
As I noted earlier, many clubs start to suffer from declining numbers in this age group. By honouring fixtures and lending players to the opposition for twenty minutes, both sets of players get game time. Looking at the bigger, longer term picture, players get to know the other local clubs, and, should their club lose critical mass, they will at least know two or three alternative clubs to look to join to continue their own participation. I would hope that London Welsh continues to have numbers through to adult rugby, and I am not being predatory, looking to poach players from other clubs, but the game is bigger than any one club. We just have to give the players the opportunity to continue to play.
Finally, thinking back to Andrew Stitson’s words of advice on non-Dad coaches and midweek training I would say that London Welsh is meeting those criteria well.
On Wednesday evenings between 7pm and 8pm we have an independent coach taking training at the 4G pitch at Chiswick for our U13-U15 age groups. This is free for all to turn up and participate.
On Monday evenings the club’s strength and conditioning coach Will Taylor runs a gym session for the same age groups at BARCH Gym behind the clubhouse. He has a couple of spaces left for these sessions. For more details please contact him directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.
With respect to the social scene, I think that this club does really well on this front. One of my final acts as coach to my elder son’s age group was to initiate a tour to Cardiff. Since then all age groups across mini and youth rugby have embraced this tradition and everyone has plenty of stories to tell about national and international tours in England, Wales, Ireland, the Channel Islands and Frankfurt.
THE LONDON WELSH FAMILY
Finally, the club as a whole has been through some tough times, with the demise of the professional side. However, the way we have galvanised as a rugby family has been quite remarkable. What other club in the eighth tier of senior men’s rugby can fill pre-match lunches for 250 people and have addresses from British Lions and lay on its own choir to sing hymns on the steps bathed in autumnal sunshine? What other club can boast such a strong women’s section, a Druids second team, a thriving Occasionals section and an U23 Griffins squad? What other club can boast such close links to the Welsh Exiles representative set up?
Moreover, each of these sections is integrating more and more with each other: the youth section ball-boying for the seniors, parents and youth players refereeing across age groups, the women’s, men’s and junior sections coming together for fun social events such as the recent quiz night.
Altogether I believe London Welsh is doing so much right and will go from strength to strength over the coming years. I hope and believe that the Youth Section similarly continues to thrive, and provides that environment for players to continue their journey in rugby.
London Welsh Youth Section
Youth Rugby is the second stage on the Rugby union ladder, it introduces young players from the ages of 13 – 18 to the 15 aside game.
London Welsh Youth Rugby train on Sundays and Wednesdays.
For further details of how to join London Welsh Youth Section please contact me at email@example.com.
Updated 11:38 - 13 Jan 2019 by The Offical London Welsh