With Cardiff Blues under-18's campaign wrapping up in style last week, Gruff Rees insists the door remains open for the players who have not received academy contracts.
The side travelled to Edinburgh on the Sunday, beating the Scottish national side on a weekend that was focused on players and coaches’ development both on and off the field.
Two days later, a much changed side secured a bonus point win over Scarlets at Sardis Road to lift the WRU Regional Age Grade Championship on the final day of the season.
More youngsters than ever have signed academy deals with their home region and more than 50 players were involved throughout the title-winning campaign.
It is inevitable that some players will be moving on to continue their rugby careers elsewhere, with some moving on to playing university rugby while others will feature for clubs at various levels.
However, Rees says a revised programme will see the region continuing to service a host of these youngsters through the next stage of their rugby development, working alongside the clubs and educational partners.
Rees also points towards academy members such as Jamie Hill and Jacob Beetham as inspiration, after the duo worked their way back into the regional set-up after initially missing out on academy deals, and hopes every player leaves the under-18 programme as better all-round players.
“It was a unique opportunity to play against a national side and I was really intrigued to go away and see what the players were like behind the scenes,” said the former Ospreys backs coach.
“I learnt a lot about academy and non-academy contracted players which has given me food for thought as well. Likewise with the staff and how they managed a weekend that was there to replicate a weekend of real high-performance rugby.
“It was an amazing experience for those players and we turned around two days later to give an almost completely different group a chance to play in a ‘final’ scenario. It was a fitting end to the under-18’s season.
“We’ll still review that properly with a lot of the year 12s remaining in our system and we’ll have high aspirations around them next season with international age grade rugby and possible academy entries.
“As for the older boys, they remain important as we want to continue monitoring where they will go in terms of university or career and try to maintain relationships with our educational partners within the region, such as Cardiff University, Cardiff Met and University of South Wales.
"A whole host of those players have shown a keen interest to stay within those establishments and we’ll be able to link up our club programme, with sides from the Premiership and Championship, to make sure we ensure these guys keep developing within the Cardiff Blues pathway.
“I think we’ve seen around someone like Jamie Hill a couple years ago. He went to USW and started picking up his academy work from there.
“Likewise is Jacob Beetham whose exit point at under-18 didn’t see an academy contract coming in the short-term. But he stayed within the region in terms of the work he’s been doing with Glamorgan Wanderers, as well as educationally, and he’s pushed through to earn an academy contract and a place in the Wales under-20 squad for the Six Nations.
“The door is never shut for these boys. The amount of academy contracts are not infinite and that means that we do our best to support other players in more creative ways as that age group of 19-23 has prehaps been under-supported in Wales at times.
“I think we’re getting it right between 16-19, but after that is when we need close-examination and one of my missions is to look at how we can develop players appropriately at those ages and how we can challenge them to possibly play more Premiership and Championship rugby, while BUCS rugby is also a real avenue for us.”
Rees has also been proud of the progress they've made with the age grade programme on a whole, in particularly the tailored and detailed development programme for each individual.
“It was pleasing overall, especially when seeing the development of the coaches and staff across the last two campaigns they’ve had, as they were new to it last season and it was almost thrust upon them.
“At the time, by not knowing enough about the backgrounds, the working relationships and the players through the pathway, we were all playing a bit of catch up.
“But, having invested heavily into this level over the last 18 months and seeing what’s come through the under-16 level, everyone is all on one page in terms of the talent available and their development but also in terms of the style of rugby we want to play, with some alignment with the seniors and the language similarities.
“But we’re also looking to put our own imprint on the side and allowing the players the freedom to express themselves, and I think you can see evidence of that across the course of the 18s, whilst giving regional exposure to a lot of players. That’s really pleasing.
“We’re proud of the talent pool that we’ve got here and what we’re trying to achieve.
“There’s also a lot of credit to the coaches as well, who have stuck to the plan we’ve had all the way through, even when the calendar has challenged us. There were times where we had three games in a week, and that’s something that has to be looked at.
“But we managed those challenges really well and while people see the silverware, that’s just the icing on the cake for us as far as the bigger picture is concerned.
“The most important thing, and the bedrock of it all, is the opportunities and the detail that’s gone into all those players.
“The beauty of the full time coaches also being involved with the 16s last year is that they got to know the talent and a lot of those boys have come through to the 18s and played during the campaign in their first year.
“We’ve got individual development plans for nigh on everyone who’s coming through the system, and that aligns with the A Licence partners.
“Boys have impressed, such as the Glantaf boys against Scarlets last Tuesday, but that’s not down to chance. We’ve been monitoring, supporting, sharing the same messages for the course of the year and dropping them in, including in under-17 fixtures, with more of those to come towards the end of the year.
“With the first phase of the under-16 programme coming to an end this week, and a block for a combined side, we’ll be at the forefront for talent identification for next year and beyond.
“It’s a constant process, which will sometimes need to be re-evaluated around form and different players taking up different opportunities.
“But we’re committed to try to be supporting everyone with their needs, as well as our partners as well.”
Two players that were eligible for the under-18 side this year but barely featured in the Regional Age Grade Championship were Ethan Lloyd and Mason Grady.
Both players have featured regularly in the Indigo Group Premiership this season, for Cardiff and Pontypridd respectively, while also playing Celtic Cup rugby for Cardiff Blues A in the autumn.
Grady also made his Wales under-20 debut during last week’s win over France, and Rees insists each player will have unique needs to enhance their development.
“By age, both Ethan Lloyd and Mason Grady could’ve played throughout that under-18 campaign.
“But having reviewed them last season and during the summer programme, they’ve been around senior rugby in terms of the A programme and we felt that both the Premiership and Championship rugby would be useful senior opportunities for them.
“They’ve seized those opportunities, Mason in particular.
“It’s pleasing, through our relationship with Pontypridd, that Mason is playing regular rugby in the 13 jersey and showing himself up to be a player with real x factor and dynamism.
“There’s a lot of rough edges to work through over the next couple fo years, but he’s got the ability to flourish and the under-20 is another step for himself to work towards that.”