Individuals that follow their school and representative rugby closely, and have done so for a number of years, will notice the high number of individuals that Harlequins bring through from their academy into their first-team squad.
For Conor O’Shea, and the wider team at Harlequins, it is of great importance that they continue developing a very strong home grown pipeline and promote the growth of players all the way through from a young age to their retirement.
An illustration of the number, and indeed talent of players, that have come through the ranks at Harlequins was provided in their recent pre-season match against the USA. In Philadelphia no less than 10 academy graduates were in the starting XV including 7 of the pack. This was a match that was part of the USA’s World Cup preparations and one that Harlequins actually won, 24-19.
A man that knows more than most about what it takes to flourish in the quarters of Harlequins is Tom Williams. As a player Tom was a one-club man and after thirteen years of service on the field he joined in the summer as part of their Academy off it. Tom was one of the first graduates from the Academy set up and has what Conor O’Shea describes as ‘one of the best rugby brains there is’. That said transitioning from being ‘one of the boys’ to management was a little daunting for the 32 year-old;
“I was really worried about it initially and about how the players would react to it – I had to quickly work out a strategy. I was thrown in at the deep end by the coaches; they said right you are running this skills session looking after Nick Easter, Nick Evans and a couple of the other guys with a lot of caps under their name like Matt Hopper and George Lowe. They said off you go, go and do it!!! The first thing that I had to do was to realise that I’ve got to get the best out of them and think about how was going to be able to do that?”
“Well, actually, there are some things that I can teach George Lowe and some things that I can’t teach Matt Hopper so it is very easy as a coach to open it up to them and ask them the questions and sometimes you learn something on the way as well! I think by doing that they realise that I’m not going to be the kind of guy that is just going to tell them what to do, unless it is absolutely necessary and they are going astray. So I think in that way the transition was very easy – the players around me I get on very well with and I got on very well with them as a player. I get on very well with the squad personally and I’ve just kept that going really.”
Tom’s focus is on Harlequins’ academy players that are coming into their top academy tier aged 18-21. The structure at the club is that they have a full time academy that starts age 18+ then underneath at the younger ages an Elite Player Development Group (EPDG) and a Developing Player Programme (DPP).
Due to the fact that Tony Diprose combines the roles of Academy Manager and First-Team Defence Coach the club identified a need for an individual to assist these 18-21 year olds in their development, both on and off the field and Tom’s experience means that he is the perfect person to do this. Tom has been through a lot in his 13 year career and has experienced the highs and lows of professional rugby and is a tremendously articulate and personable individual willing to share his experiences to better those around him. The fact that Tom has recently retired means that he has an appreciation of the emotions that his academy members, and the first team players, are going through. He is uniquely positioned to be able to remind the coaches when perhaps such a firm stance isn’t required and to ensure that the balance is correct.
It is very clear from speaking to Tom that he is, and was, a student of the game as well as a rugby player and now as a coach is observing and absorbing information on a daily basis. His eyes and ears are always open and he is clear at what he is looking for from a Harlequins academy member;
“The perfect person, there’s no such thing, and that is why rugby is brilliant because you’ve got people playing of different sizes and shapes and speeds but characteristics wise you are looking for attitude a lot of the time.”
“If you’ve got one individual that is a slightly superior player but with a worse attitude, do you really want that guy? Well you can certainly make exceptions, if that person is well above the standard of everyone else, however if you’ve got two people and one with just a slightly lower standard but a better attitude then it’s a no brainer. You’ve got to go with that guy even if his skill set is marginally lower because ultimately a lot of things are taught and learned. It’s a player’s ability to learn and their ‘coach-ability’ that you want, that’s probably the best way to phrase it, ‘coach-ability is vital.”
This weekend Harlequins are facing Calvisano and a number of individuals under Tom’s tutelage will be running out for the first-team. Without question there will be a few nerves however the inclusiveness at Harlequins means that these players will have already been training with and be getting to know the more experienced members of the squad well. In Tom’s words, rugby players are a ‘pretty solid bunch’ of people and, whether they have zero caps or ninety caps, at Harlequins ‘you are just one of the boys’.
Clearly with graduates like Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw, Luke Wallace, Jack Clifford the pressure is certainly on to maintain such a high calibre of individual graduating from Harlequins’ system. However with the current crop, the likes of James Chisholm and Joe Marchant, already showing us what they can do, you expect that this academy will continue to be one of the most fruitful in the competition.
By Emma Thurston
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