Six players in national under-20s squads and an unbeaten start to the under-18 league progamme are just two of the highlights for the Leicester Tigers academy so far in 2017/18.
Add some notable competitive opportunities for young players, developing relationships with partner schools and with Loughborough University, the buy-in of senior players and a national call-up for the coaching staff alongside strong support of parents and players, and there are plenty of positives for academy manager David Wilks and his team.
“It’s not just about players working hard, because they all work hard, but they’ve had exposure to show what they can do,” said Tigers head of rugby operations Ged Glynn following the news that five players from the club had been selected in the England Under-20s squad ahead of this season’s Six Nations and World Junior Championships.
Academy forwards Joe Heyes and Sam Lewis, plus backs Ben White, Tom Hardwick and Jordan Olowofela, have been selected by England, while flanker Tommy Reffell has been training with the Welsh squad after captaining them at Under-18 level last summer.
“What has happened this year is that those lads have had more exposure to rugby and have therefore been able to showcase their talents,” added Glynn.
“They’re good players, they work hard and they’ve had opportunities to show what they can do. They’ve played in the Premiership ‘A’ League, in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and some of them have also been getting regular rugby on loan with Loughborough University.”
Anthony Allen, the academy’s lead coach, and former first-team forwards coach Richard Blaze, who still delivers sessions with the club’s young players, have also been called up to the national coaching team alongside their Tigers duties.
“It’s good to see that the quality of the delivery of the coaches within our system has been recognised by the RFU,” said Glynn whose own coaching experience included working with England Under-21s.
There have been significant changes within the academy as Tigers face the constant challenge of producing young players capable of pushing into the senior squad in the footsteps of men like Tom and Ben Youngs, Dan Cole, Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi, Matt Smith, Harry Thacker, Harry Wells and Will Evans.
“We’ve made changes that have allowed our younger players to develop within their own environments as well as within the academy and we hope that can help to improve standards all round,” said Glynn.
“Players in the 16-18 age-group can still play at their schools as well as coming together every week at Oval Park. So, as well as having the academy group all in one place and training together, they’re also spread among our ‘Good to Great’ schools in Norfolk, Rutland, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Notts, Lincs and Derby, and at the AASE college at Brooksby Melton College with the aim of helping to push standards within the whole of the academy region.
“Our coaches are going out to the schools and delivering sessions across the different age groups every few weeks too. It’s about investing in their rugby development, strength and conditioning, and giving advice on lifestyle and nutrition. Those players can then help to drive the environment and the teams they play for, which can only help in lifting standards all round.
“The relationships with our contributing schools are blossoming and there is great commitment from the players, their parents and their schools to make every effort to get to training sessions and fixtures.
“Our junior academy manager Jamie Taylor is doing a fantastic job in the pre-academy years and the focus on the DPP groups, while Dave Wilks drives the ‘Good to Great’ programme as academy manager.
“Anthony Allen is lead coach, Boris Stankovich coaches the scrum throughout the club, and Brett Deacon and Richard Blaze work on the relationship with Loughborough University. They’re all driving their parts of it very well.”
The support of senior players – and the example they set within the environment – is important too.
“We’ve got good buy-in from the senior players,” said Glynn.
“Guys like Mathew Tait, Harry and Charlie Thacker, Harry Wells, Will Evans and George Worth got involved in academy coaching sessions earlier this season. George and Joe Ford have invited the academy kickers to work with them and George also spoke to the parents and players of the new intake earlier in the year on his experiences as an academy player coming through the ranks here.”
The club’s youngest players are now into their Under-18 Academy League programme, scoring a notable win at Sale Sharks in Round 2 after an exciting draw with local derby rivals Northampton Saints in the opening fixture.
“The game with Northampton was an exceptional game of rugby hosted by our partners at Loughborough University,” said Glynn. “The intensity was just what you would expect of a Leicester-Saints derby game even though it was a first run-out of the season.
“The second game was against a very highly-rated Sale Sharks team and I thought it was a typical old-school Leicester performance with forward dominance providing the platform for an outstanding team success.”
With a third round to come at home to Worcester Warriors later this month and the prospect of more opportunities in the ‘A’ league and Anglo-Welsh Cup for the older groups in the second half of the campaign, Glynn hopes the platform has been set for the good work to continue.