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TV Investigation suggests Welsh rugby is facing an exodus of young talent to England

25 Oct 2023 6 minute read
Evan Minto (L) and Steff Jac Jones (R)

A BBC Wales Investigation has found that Welsh rugby could be facing an exodus of young talent to England.

Research by BBC Wales shows the game is under pressure like never before and suggests there has been a dramatic decline in the number of schools playing rugby at youth level.

It also reveals the number of talented young players choosing to leave Wales to pursue their education and rugby careers in England has gone “from a trickle to a flood.”

The investigation looked at how the next generation of players for Wales’s national side are being developed and found that an increasing number of  young rugby players are choosing to head for English schools, rather than stay in Wales.

Émigrés

One of those schools is Hartpury College in England, which is packed with Welsh players like Evan Minto from Pontypool, who is the captain of their first team.

He said: “Everyone I speak to says if you want the best education, alongside rugby as well, Hartpury is the place. There’s nothing quite like this in Wales and obviously it’s so close to the border.”

On the day producers of the programme met Evan, 10 out of 15 players starting for the Hartpury first team, (16 – 18 year olds) were from Wales.

Wayne Thompson from the colleges rugby Academy says this is not unusual.“I think we had a lot of successes with Welsh students coming here, the likes of Louis Rees Zammit who came through. That does help build the brand….I like to see it that we’re helping to develop these students, and keeping them in the game.”

The Welsh Rugby Union told the BBC programme they’d made big changes to increase and retain talent. Huw Bevan, their new director of performance said: “We are not going to stop everybody, but we need to make sure that we provide a good argument for them to stay.

“If we make sure our system is equal to that in terms of facilities and resources…my preference would inevitably be for them to stay in Wales.”

The programmes asks if it matters if players are developed in England, if they still play for Wales? For example, Evan Minto  is still attached to the Dragons Academy.

Dr Ed Cope, an expert in sports coaching at Loughborough University, says keeping the best players ‘as long as you can’ in Wales is key. “That’s an absolute necessity to ensure that the level of competition is as high as it possibly can be, the best are playing their best.  The big danger, I guess from a Welsh perspective is that they become part of the English system”

Wales’s professional sides are likely to suffer from the young talent moving to England. Cardiff Rugby Academy manager, Gruff Rees, says despite ‘good educational opportunities’ in Wales, the ‘trickle’ of players leaving in previous years has ‘become a flood’ in many ways.

“I’m desperately committed to try and keep what I perceive at sixteen to be the best in Wales….but we haven’t got the financial ability to contract all and everyone at sixteen.”

Survey

BBC Wales Investigates carried out a survey of every secondary school in Wales, and found some startling results. While most schools ran teams for boys and girls up to 16, there was a big change when you looked at ages 16 -18.

The Survey discovered of 95 schools who run or ran at least one six form team in the past, half (48) have stopped in the last twenty years (1 school had stopped over 20 years ago).

That means there are half the number of schools running sixth form (16 – 18 year olds) sides as there had been 20 years ago.

The reasons given for the drop ranged from staff availability, sixth form closures and lack of pupil interests. (Source: BBC Wales Schools survey, 143 of 225 schools in Wales).

A survey of rugby clubs in Cardiff found a similar pattern. Of the 52 clubs who responded, 50 said they’d run at least one youth side in the past, but of those, half (25) no longer did, with 22 folding in the last twenty years. Less than half the clubs who responded now run a youth team.

At senior level  there’s also fewer teams, with three quarters of clubs who responded saying they are running fewer teams than they did.

The WRU’s official data on player numbers, which goes back 5 years, shows that registrations are up at all levels of the game.  But they agree youth rugby is a challenging time, and have been working hard with schools and colleges to keep young people in the game.

Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit (right) is tackled by Argentina’s Guido Petti (centre) David Davies/PA Wire.

The future?

The Wales national men’s team reached the quarter finals at the 2023 rugby World Cup. But with many stars retiring, what about the future? Former international James Hook says the success of the national team may be ‘masking the cracks’ in regional rugby in Wales.

“Everyone knows that the budgets have dropped, their finances are not there.”

Hook, who is now a skills coach with the Ospreys Academy and Swansea RFC, feels the tighter budgets mean players are now lacking the right kind of game time that he had breaking through.

“These younger players, they have to train with the squad and are probably reluctant to let them out to play with Swansea, Neath, Aberavon etc. because they’re worried about them getting injured. It is a tough one, and different to when I came through.”

Huw Bevan of the WRU believes the WRU’s future plans will reap rewards. He said: “What we want is to collaborate with the regions, if we can improve the academy system and produce more and better players then all of us are going to benefit the regions will benefit and the national team will benefit.”

BBC Wales Investigates: Welsh Rugby – Keeping the Faith is on BBC One Wales at 8pm tonight


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Dai Rob
Dai Rob
6 months ago

Scrap the so-called “Regions”….they have all failed, absolutely & totally.
Let the cream of the Welsh players go & earn their corn in England, Ireland & France. Let them pay them, and the WRU can spend all that income on building up the grassroots for the future. Make the local Rugby club be the centre of the community once again, running multiple youth teams, all properly resourced. Don’t throw more money after a failed, 20 year+ experiment.

Rob
Rob
6 months ago
Reply to  Dai Rob

Four Grand Slams (a fifth had it not been for a last minute French try), and 2 world cup semi finals in the last 20 years. Surely regional rugby has given Wales some benefit, therefore scrapping them would be a huge step backwards. What they need is re-branding. Reduce the number of regions to 3, – East, West and North.

Riki
Riki
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob

No, the club scene has had no bearing on Wales performances. This is what’s so unique about Wales, how we can have a terrible club scene and still produce players who do so well for their country. This is why imo Wales is arguably the best rugby nation on the planet outside of NZ and SA. When combining Trophies, with population and player pool, resources etc.

Gareth
Gareth
6 months ago

The drain of talent from the smaller countries to larger richer countries has been going on forever. Look at our football team, and the success it has had, and 90% of the players were developed in England. Same goes for Scotland Eire and N Ireland, and if one looks to scandanavian, and the Baltic countries it is the same there. Nothing will stop youngsters being attracted to the biggest most successful teams, the only job we need to do is, instil a sense of national pride in them before they leave, ensuring they still want to play for the homeland… Read more »

hdavies15
hdavies15
6 months ago

Apart from a link between Ospreys and Swansea Uni there is a distinct lack of formal channels for development between the regions and higher education. Hartpury will take young players at 16 get them through A levels and push them through to a higher level of education while exposing them to top class rugby development ( and other sports). Our regions need to get a bit sharper in getting brighter players onto suitable degree course here in Wales. We have 3 Unis playing in BUCS Super league, not bad for a league of only 10 top sides. Right now much… Read more »

Rhys
Rhys
6 months ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Everything you’ve said is absolutely spot on.

Riki
Riki
6 months ago

And inevitably it will be detrimental to Wales thanks to the Cap rule and Let’s be honest, players will pick high earnings over representing their country. Then we have the possibility of English clubs refusing to release them even if that rule is abandoned. It’s going to be like the football where in it will take decades to right the wrongs of having English born or based players representing Wales. Most players won’t feel the same connection if they were raised in England but chooses Wales. The only player I have seen that has broken that mold is N.Tompkins.

karl
karl
6 months ago

The regions failed. Somehow the national team has done well, but underneath its a rot. Cardiff Blues moved back to a tiny ground, the grounds like Ponty and Neath’s are a shocker to visit. The money in rugby is in pub tills it feels, not in clubs to invest. Last few international games I have noticerd people pile into a pub to watch, not one wearing an actual jersey. The WRU needs to realise that the going pro, never worked for many. Bring education and rugby together, not just ram it at kids in PE in schools. So when they… Read more »

Alwyn Evans
Alwyn Evans
6 months ago

It’s a lot more complex than the programme suggests. Several clubs in North Wales find that clubs in N England cream off their players, since SWales regions still tend to ignore Northern talent. Sale, for instance have a number of young talented players at Kirkham Grammar School, and Rugby League also attracts.
Academies that don’t play their players sufficiently often don’t help either.

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