English Rugby's next generation come together at week-long festival

By Adam WilliamsBBC Sport
Wellington Festival: More than 400 youngsters meet at week-long rugby union camp

To describe England's 2018 Six Nations campaign as a disappointment would be something of an understatement.

But a quick scan through the majority of Eddie Jones' squad from this year's championship will show a well-trodden path through an age-group development programme.

One of the first steps on the Rugby Football Union's (RFU) pathway for some of them will have started at a festival like one run at Wellington College in Berkshire this week.

More than 400 youngsters from the 14 regional academies across England have not only been facing each other in a series of matches on the pitch but being exposed to a series of development workshops off it.

While cricket has its annual Bunbury Festival for the brightest crop of 16-year-olds to come together, rugby union has its Wellington.

"First and foremost, this week is an experience," Don Barrell, the RFU's head of regional academies, told BBC Sport.

"It's not about identification as such, it's about giving a group of young people opportunities - not just on the pitch, but also in between."

Two match days at the college, playing short games under adapted laws, are supplemented by a series of sessions on topics ranging from anti-doping to nutrition.

Presentations also included Wayne Barnes on choosing a career in refereeing to England sevens coach Simor Amor on what to expect as an elite player on the programme.

With GCSE exams also on the horizon for many, nine study periods are also worked into the schedule while on campus.

Wellington College hosts the RFU's U16 festival
England internationals James Haskell and Paul Doran-Jones attended Wellington College

'Challenge and stress'

"We think this is a chance to develop some behaviours in these guys that will go on to help in their futures," added Barrell.

"The games are a part of it, but if you think about some of the best players in the world, we're talking to the youngsters about the things that aren't physical.

"It's timing, poise, composure, work-rate. The week here gives them some challenge and stress on the pitch, but off the pitch it's exposing them to a variety of learning opportunities.

"The chance to be stretched, to be challenged and then to review and make it better. These are the things that will help them moving forwards."

And that extended contact time with their players is what the academies themselves feel is the most valuable aspect of the week.

Bristol and London Irish U16s go head-to-head at the Wellington Festival
Bristol and London Irish went head-to-head on the first of two match days at Wellington

"The main thing we get out of it is that we really get to know and understand our players," said London Irish academy manager Patrick O'Grady.

"Only seeing them once a week on a Monday evening for an hour of gym and an hour of rugby limits us to actually getting to know them as a person.

"Seeing the leaders in the group and how they interact with each other during a week on a boarding-house residential is a fantastic experience for us and their parents."

'Manage expectations'

While the RFU are keen to stress performances on the pitch during the week from the 420 players are not "a scouting exercise", Irish - like many of the academies at the festival - can point to it as the beginning of a journey.

A number of their academy graduates have appeared at Wellington and gone on to represent England at both Under-18 and Under-20 level before making their senior club debuts.

"Currently we're fortunate to have five players in the England Under-20 set-up," said O'Grady. "Some of those joined us at 13 or 14, while others were picked up later.

Worcester Warriors under-16s score a try
More than 400 youngsters from the 14 regional academies took part at Wellington College

"While we want to manage expectation levels at under-16s because of the varied rates of development, we could also be signing a couple of these boys in two years' time when they leave school.

"Things do move very, very quickly and these boys are in an excellent position now. They're fortunate to be in this position but they also know there are other boys out there who want the rugby dream as much as they do.

"So, they'll continue to work hard, but we'll continue to keep our eyes open for other players as well."

'Coaches never stop learning'

The week at Wellington is not just about the academies and their players, but a chance for coaches to come together and share expertise.

Eddie Jones dropped in on Wednesday to hold a question and answer session with more than 100 from across England involved in coaching programmes in schools, clubs and universities.

"I'm as much here to learn as the other coaches are," Jones told the RFU's Facebook channel.external-link "I don't think you ever stop learning as a coach.

"It just gives great encouragement to the players and the coaches to strive to be their best.

"Some kids here will make it in professional rugby. But you want them to leave a festival like this with a love of the game."

Bristol and London Irish U16s go head-to-head at the Wellington Festival
Two match days were supplemented by a number of workshops off the pitch

One thing that is clear is that the Wellington Festival has evolved in such a fashion that the pool of players in the RFU's academy system is thriving.

"If you came back here five years ago, we would've had an England Under-16s team," said Barrell.

"The transfer of that team and who was still playing at 20, 21 or 22 was not there. Now you have 420 people, not just a single team having this experience.

"What we know is that somewhere in here there's definitely players who will go on to play for the England senior team - that's massively exciting.

"But those who don't go on will be better people because of this experience."