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Homegrown Harlequins go native to get ahead

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Matt Slater | 18:52 UK time, Friday, 20 May 2011

A little more than five years ago, Middlesbrough FC did something truly extraordinary: they fielded a squad comprised entirely of players who could play for England. OK, one of them ended up being capped by Scotland, but that does not detract from just how unusual Boro's line-up was that day. The last all-English starting XI had been Aston Villa against Coventry in 1999.

Squeezed between the post-mortems from failed summer campaigns on one side and European Union employment law on the other, how best to encourage the development of domestic talent has been one of football's biggest headaches.

Overseas quotas, work permits, "six plus five" and now the homegrown player rule, football's authorities have tried to find a balance between club, country, market and player and the jury is still out on the most recent compromise.

But Friday's European Challenge Cup Final between Harlequins and Stade Francais could provide an opportunity to see how rugby union is tackling its own Wimbledon Effect (we provide the stage, "they" provide the stars).

By the time you read this, that match will be over and one of the sides will have rescued their season with a grand finale and booked themselves a place European rugby's premier club competition, the Heineken Cup, next year.

But whatever the result, Quins deserve a polite ripple of applause for trying to do what Boro did in 2006 and Villa in 1999. The Twickenham-based club are the most English outfit in the Premiership and that Englishness is also young, talented and largely homegrown.

Eighteen of Quins' match-day squad at the Cardiff City Stadium could be selected by England, a ratio in line with the team's average for the entire season, a campaign that saw Quins lead the league in the English Qualified Players (EQP) stats. There have been many times this year when the team was effectively New Zealand fly-half Nick Evans, an Argentine, a Samoan and 20 Englishmen.

To draw some comparisons with football, Quins' squads were 76.8% English this season, whilst the average across the league was 67.5%.

What Fabio Capello would do for such options. According to The Guardian on Friday, only 41.6% of Premier League squads are available for England duty, a smaller number than the corresponding figures for all other major European leagues (62.1% in Spain and 54.3% in Germany, to name just two).

The new homegrown rule, which states eight of a club's 25-man squad must have been registered with an English or Welsh team for three seasons before their 21st birthdays, may arrest the dash for foreign talent but it might not. After all, as almost every article about this rule has pointed out, Cesc Fabregas is homegrown but not available to Capello.

From left to right: Nick Easter George Robson, Joe Gray, Ugo MonyeHarlequins' homegrown talent took them to the European Challenge Cup final

So faced with the same legal issues and calls "to do something" as football, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Premiership Rugby (PR) came up with something different: a cash-back deal for buying local.

Introduced two years ago, the idea is refreshingly simple. Average 14 English players in your match-day squads throughout the season and you qualify for a cheque worth up to £350,000.

Given the fact that 11 of the 12 Premiership clubs meet this requirement and the only one that does not, Saracens, is not remotely concerned about it could suggest the bar is not set high enough. But those 14 English yeomen needed for a share of the EQP pot will soon have to be 15.

And there is talk of the RFU and PR providing more than the £3.5m a year they already commit to the scheme.

Daren O'Leary, the former Premiership winger turned players' agent, told me the EQP concept has had a big impact on the recruitment policies at almost every club.

"We're moving towards a situation where you won't see any foreign players on Premiership benches at all, and those English players will be young and probably academy products," said O'Leary.

"The RFU has been clever because they have taken EU employment law out of the equation - you either hit the target or you don't, it's up to you, but if you do, you get a useful amount of money."

But for Quins, the cash is a pleasant by-product - not the goal - of a conscious decision to go native.

"Deciding to become a predominantly English team is an important part of our plan to take the club forward," Harlequins Academy Manager and former England international Tony Diprose explained.

"That doesn't mean that we'll never sign a foreign player again but we are definitely looking to develop an English core to the team."

It is a plan that is already bearing fruit at The Stoop and helping the club to rebuild its reputation post-Bloodgate.

A league finish of 7th might not sound special but no team lost as many close games as Quins this year and the run to Cardiff included one of the best results by an English club all season, a 20-12 semi-final win over Munster at their Thomond Park citadel.

Quins are a work in progress but this season has seen the talents of centre George Lowe and prop Joe Marler bloom well ahead of schedule. And there is more where they came from: the academy is packed with England age-group talent and Diprose would back his U21 team against any in the land.

The club is also willing to go out and get domestic talent from elsewhere. Just as England scrum-half Danny Care started at Leeds, young hooker Joe Gray joined last year having found his path blocked at Northampton by Dylan Hartley.

"I was getting sniffs of first-team action but Dylan is a quality player and would regularly play 80 minutes so I wasn't getting the game time I needed to develop," Gray told me.

"I looked around and Quins seemed the ideal place. It's a young squad but we've got experience in key positions and an awesome academy. The future is bright."

Bright for Quins and Gray, perhaps, as his form has brought him to the attention of England's senior set-up. Having played for his country at every age-group level, Gray should get a call from the England's second string, the Saxons, this summer.

Despite being tall for a hooker (he's 6ft 2in), Gray isn't the most eye-catching of players but he is a coach's dream. Quins' lineout is rock solid, thanks in large part to his throwing, he hits rucks hard and nobody made more tackles against Munster than the 22-year-old "fourth" back row.

So win, lose or draw (impossible, I know) against Stade Francais, Quins are on the up, which is good for them and potentially even better for England.

As well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at http://twitter.com/bbc_matt

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    You are joking? All Quins points in the Amlin Cup final were courtesy of a kiwi and a puma. The South seas boys played well too.

  • Comment number 2.

    And as we all know EggbertDaEnglishman rugby is a two man game

  • Comment number 3.

    There was me thinking rugby was a team sport! Also it obviously it must be terrible for the game to have young English players like Clegg being mentored by the likes of Evans.

  • Comment number 4.

    Two days before that Smoggies game you mention Newcastle Falcons had an all-English 22 against Leeds. In the same sport Quins play.

  • Comment number 5.

    Matt - The fact that 11 out of 12 do meet the bar suggests club do care not the reverse. And what makes you say Saracens don't remotely care ? That is an unqualified cheap shot at a club with one of the strongest academies in the premiership that is starting to run a production line of young EQPs such as Owen Farrell, Andy Saull, Andy Goode, Adam Powell, Noah Cato to name but a few ..

  • Comment number 6.

    Richardh - you are talking rubbish noah cato was brought by saracens, owen farrel came on the back of his dads coaching, most of the other so called "academy players" you mention were poached by other clubs. Saracens doesn't care about English rugby, they would love to full the team full of south africans and rename the team London south africa if the RFU would let them get away with it. It's important for english rugby that the teams have a good basis of english talent with the undoubtable quality and guidance provided by top foreign talent like Nick Evans.

  • Comment number 7.

    Absolutely superb blog. And how refreshing. Living in France, I don't follow English club rugby closely (my local club is Brive, so I support them in both domestic and European comps). But I am tempted to nip 'en ville' and by a Quins shirt. I'd love it (said in K. Keegan voice) if the EPL adopted an EQP policy. As you pointed out, what a smart way of side stepping EU employment regulation. As for Quins, Brive's loss might be Quins gain. Or maybe it's okay to support both. Either way, respect is due and I'm CHUFFED they won the European Challenge Cup. Chuffed. I was before I read this blog. And now doubly so. Final word: well done RFU. England's future seems secured. Top blog.

  • Comment number 8.

    @richardh:

    I'll take a far more balanced view than budbud, and suggest that what is insinuated is that the reward is not high enough for Sarries to take notice. They have obviously been bringing in foreign stars until the raft of superb academy players make the grade, and I imagine their EQP %age will gradually increase in the next couple of years. There is a clear plan at Sarries, and it seems to be working - if Copthall can be a success then they can go far.

    On Quins, it is excellent, the quality of the players in superb. And when your non-EQP's are one of the best FH's in the world, one of the best wings in the AP and a Samoan on serious form, you can see what oversees players should be about - top quality. Not journeymen who sit on the bench (incidently, Quins' bench included long servant Ceri Jones, a young Irish SH (all the others are broken, and he is leaving the club now) and a few more Englishmen).

    We've come a long way since Mark Evans' "if in doubt, sign a Samoan" :p

  • Comment number 9.

    This issue comes up a lot in football but people only ever seem to argue it from one side. Does no one else think that the Premier League is better with foreign stars? People point to Spain's recent success and the fact that a most of their players play at home, but what about countries like Holland, Brazil and Argentina? You don't need your players to play at home to have a good national side. Surely having English players playing against the best players in the world helps them?

    I think it would be a terrible shame if the quality of the top divisions in both football and rugby dropped so as to try and improve the national team. It isn't the purpose of the domestic league to produce players for the national team. I love going to games or watching them on tv and seeing the best players in the world! Whether they are English or not. And if 11 out of 12 teams in the Aviva premiership already meet the requirement for English players is this really an issue at all?

    The Middlesbrough game you mentioned was a bit of an anomaly. Steve McClaren was resting players before the UEFA cup final so a lot of young players were in the squad that day. The team for the final only had 5 Englishmen in the starting 11. Middlesbrough have been very good at producing good young players recently but only 2 of them (Downing and Johnson) have made it to the international level. It is good to see local players on the field but to be honest I would rather not have any of those and still be in the Premier league.

    Getting back to rugby; well done to Quins for a great win yesterday. Looking forward to what could be a fantastic Heiniken Cup final later this afternoon.

  • Comment number 10.

    Tom you seem to be making the assumption that the Saracens foreigners aren't top quality. If they weren't top quality why would they be part of one of the best sides in the AP? We don't have any journeyman. If they are not good enough they leave.

    budbud please be more specific about the most academy players were poached or are you all hot air?

    Congratulations to Harlequins for winning a minor trophy. Let's see if they can make any ground in the big ones next season.

    Still 6 sides better than you in the AP. Well certainly the top 4 are.

  • Comment number 11.

    First of all "MINOR" trophy? Don't think so, beating teams such as Munster and Stade shows the ability and high level of rugby played in the tournament. The system being undertaken at Quins is highly effective and beneficial to english rugby and is definately the way forward. However Quins are way off perfection with only 3 of the english players featuring regularly in the England squad and many of the current squad unlikely to secure a regular place in my opinion (and i'm a quins fan). It is also important for teams to have international stars as they can influence with different approaches to the game from their country and cultures. Nick Evans has been a great influence on the quins team by developing a more expansive and creative attack (as is the way in new zealand).
    Well done Quins for grinding out a fantastic win against Stade again and through this win hopefully only more silverware can come to the Stoop in the near future!!

  • Comment number 12.

    Major Trophies = English rugby title and Heineken Cup

    Minor Trophies = LV=Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup

    It is a minor trophy. Admittedly have a trophy is better than not having one. It is a good achievement and worth more than the LV cup but worth a lot less than the AP and HC titles. That is the reality.

    Munster were only in the Amlin as they failed in the HC. Stade Francais have shown they are not top 6 quality in France.

    Much easier to win the Amlin than the HC or English title.

    Quins have done well this season to win a trophy and help the development of so many young English players. On the other hand let's not carried away. Can you match Leicester,Saracens,Saints,Gloucester and Bath next season? We'll see.

  • Comment number 13.

    richardh come on, 'what makes us think Saracens don't remotely care??'

    Brits, Reynecke, Carstens, du Plessis, Gill, Nieto, Saunders, Botha, Smith, Brown, Burger, Melck, Joubert, de Koc, Hougaard, Ratuvou, Ratuvou, Tagicakibau, Wyles Venter, Durand.

    These names sound English to you? You can't pass it off by throwing a few token English backs in there like Farrell, Goode, Stretts (quins), Cato (leaving) [What with all the tries your backs are scoring].

    Sarries could learn a lot from the Quins/Gloucester/Northamps/Bath book, strong English base with a few talented internationals, successful seasons betweeen them, playing a brand of rugby which fans can actually bare to watch. [Fuimaono-Sapolu had a point, Sarries are exactly the reason the premiership is a joke Down-Under]


  • Comment number 14.

    I've been a Saracens supporter since the early 90's when the game was amateur and my secondary school games teacher played for them, it really riles me that there is now a clear bias towards Sarries in the media and some bitterness beyond because they have chosen a slightly different route to success, (which is working I might add) they tried many things before which didnt work.. As we all know it takes time to build a team from scratch/youth players and you need stars to help them learn/develop, all the players Saracens have signed are top class and mostly internationals of varying degrees.

    However everyone seems to forget that many england qualified players from the 90's early 2000's were originally Saracens players, (who have always had an excellent academy) and had to leave when bigger clubs with money came in for them; Jason Leonard, Danny Grewcock, Ben Clarke, Tony Diprose, Julian White, George Chuter, Matt Cairns, David Flatman, Dean Ryan etc.. Richard Hill & Kevin Sorrell the only exceptions who stayed from memory. Some of the above are still playing or recently retired.

    In the squad this season James Short, Jackson Wray, Andy Saull, Alex Goode, Jamie George, Don Barrell, Noah Cato, Adam Powell plus those who are english or england qualified: Vyvyan, Borthwick, Strettle, Barritt, Mordt, Kruis, Stevens, Penney, Wigglesworth... Not to mention the other home nations players like Kelly Brown and Rhys Gill.

    Now sure they have plenty of Saffas, but many clubs have overseas players, look at Leicester with the Tuilagis, its part of the game, yes im against too many overseas players & the quota is a good idea, but who can complain when the overseas players are as good as Shalk Brits and Ernst Joubert. Where would Harlequins be this season without Nick Evans, his play/kicking helped win them the Amlin Cup.

    Saracens have had to do this to break the stranglehold that clubs like Leicester, Bath, Wasps etc have had on the league in the past, however like Man Utd in football they do it with a core of homegrown talent, all of whom are worthy of representing England!

  • Comment number 15.

    Cant believe I forgot Owen Farrell and although he is the son of Andy, he has been brought through from the Academy and is playing on merit with great ability both technical and mental and some would argue is the young talent/find of the season.

  • Comment number 16.

    spurs_surfer I have to agree with you Sarries have produced some great English talent over the years, but a lot has changed since the 90's, as has the public opinion of Sarries. Every club needs a balance between internationals and homegrown boys and Sarries really aren't even looking to find it.

    Which Sarries acadamy players are realistically pushing for the world cup squad this year?

    Fine Goode and Farrell are class (Goode especially), but they are hardly given the chance to shine when you guys barely even look to attack (take a look at attacking stats/tries scored on the premiership website). And from the pack.. Saull? I dont think so.

    For a team that has just gone 12 matches unbeaten, and favorites to win the prem, if there really was a 'core of homegrown talent' it would be making a name for itself.

  • Comment number 17.

    Thanks Matt for drawing attention to an important issue. I think that most clubs would say that they are nurturing English talent but very few have done it to the same level of success as Quins. Whether they have had all these players from a very young age or wether they have created an environment were these guys get the opportunity to develop, I think that they are to be appluaded for the efforts.

    The next step is getting the team to win on a more consistent basis. I am sure that Quins will have set a higher ZP finish as one of their basic goals for next year. One of the teams that have made that tranistion is Sarries. Their place in the final is testement to the fact that they have can win (and seemingly annoy everyone else in the process - Jealousy?) close games and IF the national team can emulate that I for one will be a happy bunny.

  • Comment number 18.

    Great blog, i would like to add that alot of the talent young guys are being signed from championship clubs, either developing the talent through the clubs youth structures or signing them from Uni or unwanted Prem Acadamy players, and coaching them to be very good players, and then they move on to Premiership clubs.
    What does the RFU do for these Championship clubs? NOTHING all the rewards go to the Premiership clubs .
    Acadamy products who cannot get rugby at their clubs so join Championship sides and realise their protential , i have seen it happen so many times, its about time the RFU realised what a great job the championship clubs are doing for english rugby.
    A strong championship means a strong Premiership.

  • Comment number 19.

    @16 I'll think youll find that Sarries are looking toi find local homegrown talent players, they just tend to do it under the radar, this season alone James Short, Jackson Wray and Jamie George have all made it into the first team and are playing regularly, thats if you ignore Owen Farrell, who I think will be a future England international, rememeber he's only just 19 and this is his first full season, he was on loan to Bedford I think previously, he's shown real class for a young guy with little experience, I liken him in that respect to Ben Youngs, he just has that in built rugby brain and mental strength.

    Saull & Goode have dropped off a bit recently due to injuries, yet were potential England players not long ago, both are in the Saxons squad I believe.. oh and if you look at a couple of our tries this season, Goode has started them off with some excellent play, just see the try of the season I think, he started it in our own 22 with some great footwork and not for the first time either.

    Yes were arent playing the most fluid style of rugby but I think its a development thing, last season we were turgid in the first half of the season then started playing this free flowing attacking style which got us rave reviews and to the final but ultimately cost us it as well. I have a feeling they are trying to create a strong defence and work ethic and build upon it season by season.

  • Comment number 20.

    spurs_surfer

    Half the english qualified players you have bought in recent seasons, strettle (quins) Wigglesworth (sale) Borthwick (bath) Stevens (Bath) - so can hardly say about the strength of the academy that sarries have as they have bought it and not nurtured it. Although do feel sarries get a bit of stick for their saffer heavy squad and do have some good english players they have bought a lot of them and not developed them through the academy system as quins have done.

  • Comment number 21.

    @20 Smiffie345

    Yes your right on those players, but all clubs bring in players, be they English or not, my point was that in the first team squad Sarries have 8-9 academy players, im not sure how may Quins have and all credit to them for bringing them through and playing them.

    Im just saying that everyone focuses on Sarries overseas players etc and ignores the fact that for 20+ years they've been nurturing good young English players and giving them first team opportunites. Just see James Short, Owen Farrell, Jackson Wray and Jamie George this season alone as an example.

  • Comment number 22.

    Did anyone read Steven Jones' article in the Sunday Times? I don't think i have ever read a more one sided article written by a supposedly well-informed rugby commentator before. Admittedly Harlequins were made to look second best for parts of the match but his article seems to suggest they never turned up and only sneaked the win through Stade's mistakes, and the referees incompetence. Not one positive comment throughout?! The sad thing is i used to respect the man.

  • Comment number 23.

    Apologies for not replying to your comments earlier, bit late now. So I'll just make a few very quick general points.

    1) I don't have it in for Sarries but the facts speak for themselves. They are only club to fail to meet the EQP target. This is hardly surprising as they are pursuing a fairly unique approach ie the whole link to SA. Which is fine. What is more interesting is that they appear to have modified this a tad recently and now seem to be heading towards a more typical mix of foreign (OK, SA) stars and young domestic talent, which again isn't that surprising as the English age-group teams are going pretty well at the moment and Sarries have always had a good patch to recruit from....I know it very well!

    2) I thought I made it pretty clear in the piece that Quins weren't ruling out signing foreign players in the future or denying the importance of their existing foreign players. But I'm glad some of the other posters noticed.

    3) My interest in this subject was more to do with how the RFU/PR were approaching a problem that has vexed football for years. I know comparisons between the two sports can be very misleading but I think there is definitely the kernel of a great idea here. And I was particularly impressed by what I heard of Quins' strategy to build on this concept and reshape the club. Good luck to them, I say.

    4) And as a final thought, I'm hearing very good things about Rory Clegg. Better even than Owen Farrell. Could be England's 10 in 2015.

  • Comment number 24.

    I agree wholeheartedly on the approach the RFU/PR is taking, its an excellent idea and a shame that Football hasnt thought of such an idea to bring through English players, however unlike rugby, football is much more about results & revenue and has been established as a professional game much longer.

    The major problem with football in the UK compared to rugby is that the international competition for players is much greater and in order to suceed they have to buy foreign players, which are generally cheaper than English, whereas in rugby there is no transfer fee so its easier to bring players in as you only have to worry about the wages.

    I hadnt heard about Rory Clegg, looks like England has good prospects at fly half, now if only Alex Goode would get his act together and play there like he does at fullback! On Owen Farrell, I heard he was more of a centre initially.

    Matt on your point about Sarries recruitment, many of their young players are from the local area, they visit schools all over Herts, Barnet (I know this as my friends a teacher near copthall) and still maintain an presence in Southgate as well as training at Herts Uni in Hatfield. I was lucky to get to meet Pienaar, Lynagh etc when they came to my college in Barnet in 1998 so I know they get around.

 

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