We sat down with Cardiff Blues Academy manager, Gruff Rees, to see the challenges he's faced due to Covid-19, the current state of the academy and age grade rugby and the influence of Nigel Walker's appointment as an advisor to the Board.
Q: The academy group have gradually returned to training over the last couple of weeks. What have been the challenges that you’ve faced over the last few months?
GR: It’s been important for us to get back. There was probably a feeling a few months ago that academy and age grade rugby would be forgotten a little bit.
Behind the scenes a lot of us had to put a fair bit of time and energy to ensure we could put a great programme together, which was a bit tricky sometimes.
There is a window now where a group of our most talented young players, because there wasn’t any community rugby and the professional game was set in stone, needed a bit of attention.
I think they’ve gone off and done their own thing, and we’ve supported them mentally and physically off the field, and they’ve come back in great space.
But now we feel that we have a chance to make a big difference. There are no fixtures on the horizon for these guys, but we probably couldn’t slip from month-to-month without any competitive goals.
So we’ve looked at a block where we can make a real physical difference over the next three months. Likewise, we’re looking at some of the fundamentals as well.
That’s been great for us to do, working closely with the Welsh Rugby Union, but also following the protocols that the senior squad have gone through. Being up at Pentwyn has been important for us to immerse ourselves in the identity and culture of the new environment and that’s been exciting.
I’m looking again at academy staff and players, who have been on the sidelines so to speak, but now they have a renewed enthusiasm and motivation, which is what these guys need in the professional game.
Q: With the academy players missing out on key game time during this period, how have you looked to replace this and ensure their development continues?
GR: We’re always looking at what’s best for the individual, and that’s something we pride ourselves on with the academy.
This period has been good for some guys, who have done stuff away from rugby, stuff they’ve done vocationally and work-wise, which I don’t think they would’ve done without this period. Fair play to them for taking that opportunity.
But now we’re creating a really specific and individualised working week without having the thought-process of a Saturday or a Wednesday fixture, which can cloud the calendar sometimes.
It’s a fresh landscape, and we’ll be creative behind the scenes to see how we can replicate the competitive instincts we need to prepare these guys, because ultimately the seniors have got good training numbers with a lot of young players coming through and being given a chance with the senior group.
Q: With many people turning to Zoom calls over the lockdown period, did you use this as a tool to keep in touch with the academy group as a whole?
GR: Early on we put a lot of information out that was beneficial to the players’ mental wellbeing and have been really supportive with the S&C and some of the programmes that went out pre-lockdown.
It was important to touch base as we have a duty of care for all players and staff.
But we got to a point where we didn’t over-do it. While abiding to furlough guidelines, we were also mindful of these young men enjoying themselves.
I looked at a lot of other establishments, who had good intentions I’m sure, but I felt everyone was a bit too full-on at times. There was no end goals in terms of when we could come back and we’re still uncertain on some things.
We did ease off the gas a little bit and trusted them to do their own thing. A lot have done different work opportunities, which I think has broaden them as people, and that’s really important for us.
We wanted them to enjoy time with families and spend a bit of time with them, which, when you’re around the professional game, you’re not going to get back.
We were also quite mindful, when we were starting to look at getting more details on the plans and how we could integrate back, that these guys as young athletes had to come back in a reasonable level of shape.
It was just important that we had the right processes to guide them through the last month or so, before they came back for face-to-face training.
Q: We’ve already seen a number of academy members being integrated into training with the senior side over the last few weeks. How important will these experiences be to those individuals?
GR: You look at the training environment created around Cardiff Blues, and it’s very competitive, both both in the gym and outside, in terms of the skills-based work and the game-based stuff that these guys are doing.
Athletically, especially some of the young backs that are coming through the academy, they need that challenge. They need to be pushed in terms of who they can train with and against, and then we can develop their competitive spirit within the seniors.
We want them to be comfortable amongst it, but not too comfortable so that it becomes a routine for them. We want them coming in every day and being motivated and sharp and encouraged to express themselves, which I think is a big thing with John Mulvihill the senior group.
I’m proud to see how those guys have gone about their work. I’m not there watching, but I watch the footage, looking at test results and we are producing high-skilled athletes who are probably physically better prepared than a lot of their peers from before around Wales.
That’s one of the big things we’re looking for and a big part of my role, as well as the coaches, is talent identification. When I saw someone like Immanuel Feyi-Waboso as a 15 year old, you know he has every opportunity.
He’s a bright young man who is very educationally minded and very coachable. He will do well off the field, but he could certainly have a career on the field.
The senior coaches have seen flashes of that now, and it was my intention to give him a little flavour of it over the summer, before he goes back to his schooling at Clifton, and he’s someone that we’re hoping we can drip-feed through as the season goes on.
Q: Having had time to do some reflection over the last few months, how has the outlook for the academy changed, both in the short term and long term?
GR: It’s been really gratifying to see, in the two years that I’ve been here, the vision is there and the support we’ve had in the academy. That’s backed up in the coaching resource we’ve put into it and the management support that we’ve got to aid player development in the region.
You look at the independent review findings that the Welsh Rugby Union went through, and as a region we have to continue to grow and develop our partnerships.
That’s been another part of the work we’ve been doing behind the scenes. We’ve got close colleagues at Cardiff and Vale College, Coleg y Cymoedd, Ysgol Glantaf and Whitchurch High School, and a lot of my work is still to liaise with these guys on a regular basis around the uncertainty that we all face.
We need to help each other through it and that’s probably something we can’t measure but part of my role is to spend time with personnel and ask questions about how we can continually evolve this part of player development.
We’ve all been on countless webinars of CPD sessions, which have been great in their own ways, but now we have to marry-up our thoughts, and I think we’re now clearer than ever in terms of what we’re looking for in a Cardiff Blues player at 16, 18. The important thing then will be how to keep improving and challenging those players and I think we have the coaching support staff to do that.
Q: Has Nigel Walker’s appointment as an advisor on the Cardiff Blues board had any impact on the academy?
GR: Nigel Walker was appointed onto the Cardiff Blues board as an advisor earlier in the summer, and we’re really excited by that. His passion is clear to see and we’ve already had really positive conversations with him, which is great.
He’s eager to be involved in the player development aspect. He has a depth of knowledge and experience, not just from his time playing for Cardiff and Wales, but from a high performance environment with the English Institute of Sports, and that will be invaluable for us.
He knows this club inside out and is passionate about the development of homegrown talent. He’s proactive and I’ve already spoken a couple of times with Nigel, and left those conversations feeling positive and excited about what we’ve discussed and where we’re heading.
Q: Another recent announcement was the partnership developed with Hartpury College. What affect will this have on the academy?
GR: First of all it’s important to say that some of the education partners we have on our doorstep, and the relationship we have with our A Licences, is a positive one. As I’ve said before, they are key partners who we thrive on working with and they’re really important partnerships for us.
They’re real good places to signpost good educational options and the good rugby-playing programmes that take place in each of those.
But as John pointed out, parents and players often want to look at different opportunities and it was clear, having spent a lot of time with Louie Hennessey-Booth’s family last year, and they were looking at different options around England. There were three or four that he could’ve taken.
Hartpury was the one that ended up suiting him the best in terms of the A Level he’s going to do, but he was also quite taken by the rugby programme there. Wayne Thompson and his crew have put a really impressive programme together, substantiated by some of the players who have come through that system.
For the player on our doorstep, we didn’t want to lose that connection.
We’ve already spoken about Immanuel, and we’ve worked really productively with Clifton and Matt Salter there over the last 12 months. Again, it’s not about putting formal structures to what these guys’ week look like, it’s about positive discussions on what each player needs to do to improve their game and how we can share ideas on how we do things.
Even though it’s not necessarily a formal thing, it’s born out of necessity of supporting all players who come through the pathway, including those who want to do things a little bit different.
Q: And is this also an opportunity for these players who opt to study in England to develop personally and gain independence from the experience?
GR: There are a lot of different factors that come into play in terms of what a young man needs or in terms of what their families perceive the programme to be as well.
Some players I’d say need to be on our doorstep and we need to take more of a closer control in terms of what four times a week in the gym looks for them, because they’re at the age where we can make real significant improvements if they work closely with our coaches.
But for others, it’s around deciding what’s the best A Levels for them, which would take them to the university option that they want to do. What course could their career be alongside rugby, let alone after rugby?
There’s a lot of different factors at play but I’m pretty proud that I wouldn’t necessarily just think about a structure and defining everything. It’s bespoke to the player and try to make things work for our players around education, rugby and we try to provide the best fit for both.
Q: With travelling a little bit more difficult in recent times, academy members Gwilym Bradley and Theo Bevacqua, who were both signed through the Exiles programme, were still located in the south of England. Therefore, they’ve been training with London Welsh over the past few weeks. What was the thinking behind that partnership?
GR: It’s been pleasing. During this period I’ve been looking at different contingencies for different players, because we weren’t quite sure on the timeline for the academy’s return.
Both Gwilym and Theo are London-based and I had a contact with Cai Griffiths and Will Taylor at London Welsh, who were guys I’d formerly coached at the Ospreys.
I knew they were going to put together a good coaching programme that I could trust. It’s also at the boys’ doorstep, but it’s nice to have that historical connection with London Welsh.
But the driver was a summer programme which could actually challenge them, could fit within the year and also get them engaged with other people on a rugby field.
I went up to London to speak to both players and it was a great set-up, and they really appreciate the support they had.
There’s the potential of them playing fixutres up there this year, because we’re not sure when we’ll integrate back into rugby, so that’s an option that we could possibly support.
Theo has had his A Level results and has been accepted into Cardiff University so they will be someone who can also provide a service more on our doorstep, but these type of connections could be really valuable for the future.
Q: Looking a little bit further down the pyramid, what’s the development regarding age grade rugby?
GR: First and foremost, I’ve been really happy that Aled James, as our talent pathway manager, has been at the forefront in terms of driving our plan when it comes to age grade rugby.
It’s been a concern, because the under-16 squads we picked in March has had no real outlet for us to identify and track through those couple of months of fixtures, and the summer period after that.
But we have a plan in place for under-16 rugby to commence in October and following similar processes to what we’ve done with the academy, in terms of the basics and the simple S&C work around small group work.
It will be labour intensive, and we will lean heavily on our volunteer network, and they’re so passionate about age grade rugby that I’m sure we’ll get that support.
That will be both under-16 sides coming through and will hopefully take them up to Christmas time.
The big one for me will also try to work closely with the schools and colleges around the year 12 players, who have just come out of under-16 rugby. We want to look more at under-17 type of events around the region, and identify who could potentially play under-18 rugby later in the calendar.
There’s no block one or block two planned this year around age grade rugby, but working closely with the Welsh Rugby Union, we’re hoping we’ll still have a Schools and Colleges format which will take us into the New Year.
Hopefully from that point we can have regional under-17 and under-18 games later in the traditional season, which would take us into the summer.
Q: Of course, these age grade players are the future of the region, and three players have graduated from the under-16 programme to sign academy deals with Cardiff Blues. There’s been a focus on bringing players into the academy at an earlier age, and you must be really pleased to see these boys stepping up, even at such a young age?
GR: There was a few gaps for whatever reason in terms of numbers and provision a couple of years ago.
But we’ve looked at it now and for us, when we did head into lockdown, it was pleasing to see a high number of Cardiff Blues players who had done well around the Wales under-20 group, which wasn’t necessarily predicted at the start of the season.
You look at people like Mason Grady, Gwilym Bradley, Jacob Beetham and Theo Bevacqua, those guys came through strongly around the Six Nations, and there’s a few guys again, and I don’t think the national selectors would’ve predicted that.
Things evolve differently over the year sometimes, and it’s pleasing for us that we’re doing a lot of work in the background that gives these boys a chance to flourish.
Also, just as lockdown was coming in, a really high number of players were on the cusp of selection for Wales under-18, on the back of a successful programme. That’s really been about us continuing to push and judge players and keep them thriving from schools and colleges to regional age grade and national age grade.
That’s the hub of the job, prior to the academy work, and that’s why it’s valuable for us to plan ahead also.