In 1995 the game of Rugby turned professional, suddenly rugby was not just a hobby forÂ evenings and weekends but a job, a career. Many many column inches have been written on the impact that had on the clubs and the players, but very little has been written on what it meant for the aspiring players, the schoolboy players.
Suddenly, school children who were talented at rugby could consider that talent as a genuine post school option, but there was no real system in place for that. In previous era’s you generally played where you worked, but now suddenly with the prospect of being paid, they were the same thing.
Independent schools were the first to react, realising that here was an opportunity to raise their profile through sport by bringing in high class coaches and players. Colston’s were the most famous example of this, awarding scholarships to some top players, and bringing in Andy Robinson (yes that Andy Robinson) to help with coaching. It was a resounding success, they won 52 consecutive Daily Mail Cup matches, winning the tournament six times in a row between 1995 and 2000. They turned out some top class pro’s too, with the likes of Olly Barkley, Lee Mears, Duncan Bell, Alex Browne, Jordan Crane and Tom Varndell passing through.
The trouble was that some, like Colston’s and Oakham, overdid it, importing too many players and essentially dominating the schools scene. Some saw it as cheating, others saw it as unfair on the kids who had always been there, while others said it was compromising their educational integrity. Whatever your view though, the result was that rules on importing players were brought in, thus giving the Professional clubs a chance to wade in.
Wade in they did, Academies sprung up, and became linked to small local 6th form colleges where the boys were coached by club staff and made a part of the club from a much younger age. It is essentially the system that operates today, of course the major public schools still produce and nurture players, but not like in the 90’s. It is a fantastic system for producing good rugby players, or at least good ‘identikit’ rugby playlers. There is an argument to say that academies can lead to overcoaching, but that is an argument for a different day.
What is often forgotten though is that for every player that makes it, there are probably at least six that don’t, and of those that do, some will only last a few years, or get injured. Even if they are one of the lucky ones, they will probably only have 12 professional years. The sport has a duty to ensure that those 16-18 year old players are receiving a top class education, because most of them will need it right away and all will need it eventually.
In the era of the independent school’s importing players this was a given, after all independent schools exist to provide a better education, that is why they cost so much. While it is admirable that Premiership academies paired with 6th form College’s there is just no comparison in terms of education.
The Premiership clubs cannot be expected to be the ones to change things, they exist to produce good players and to win, Academies produce good players, so why would they stop. The RFU on the other hand exists to manage and protect the game and the players, in my view a good education is the best protection of all.
In my view, Colston’s got it right, sure they maybe went a bit far, but they produced good players who had a top class education to fall back on. If I were the RFU I would try to impose a rule on Professional clubs, they cannot have players until they have finished school, if they wish to sponsor a child through private education they are welcome to. There should be limits on imports of course, but there are more than enough schools to share the load.
After all, a World Cup winning squad in 2003 was created off the back of the Public School imports era..