The latest rumours are that two of Tigers younger fringe players in Jonny Harris and Alex Lewington are to leave the club in the summer and join London Irish. Whilst it is disappointing to lose young players especially ones who haven’t really had a chance this post isn’t really about that.
It’s about the chance to earn those opportunities through good form in the Extras.
The A league has been emasculated and is now a joke. There are only 5 games and they were finished by October 15th. What sort of competition is only 5 games and over barely 7 weeks into a 40 week season? Last year the competition was shifted to its current format because of the World Cup’s impact on squad depth, the original idea was for it to shift back to the 10 game season it had previously enjoyed but this was blocked by clubs like London Wasps and London Irish who don’t run large enough squads to fulfil these fixtures properly.
The first question is do we even need an A league? The answer is surely yes as second team rugby is still the best way to bring through younger players and keep your more senior reserves match fit. Loan spells in the second division are also crucial for player’s development as they are full on serious rugby with winning the only aim, but second team rugby where players can almost embarrass the coach into giving them a chance with their form is the best way to make that final step from junior player into first team player.
So what form of second team competition should we have? We can’t just disregard the Wasps and Irish worries of small squads as we can’t force anyone to give us a game. Also the sort of 80-5 thrashings when Leeds sent their U-19s doesn’t really help anyone. Instead we can recognise that England is actually a small country, the furthest game would be Newcastle to Exeter which is only 6 hours travel, and get rid of these geographic conferences that means Tigers have to travel to Sale and Newcastle every year but never face Bath or Harlequins. If we had two divisions based on talent rather than geography the quality would rise as the best sides would face each other more often than once a year in the play offs. Or even better than that the clubs that don’t wish to participate don’t and the rest of us (perhaps Harlequins, Saracens, Northampton, Gloucester, Bath, Exeter, Newcastle and Leicester) play a single-pool double round-robin i.e. a straight league of 14 games.
Those 14 games would give the fringe players like Harris or Lewington the chance to push their claims for the first team in front of their won fans and with their own team mates all year round. It would aid club togetherness as young players aren’t being harried from pillar to post to fulfil dual registration commitments. It would also give clubs more fixtures to play at their grounds and attract fans to. When the A league was worth its salt we were pulling in crowds of 5 thousand with 12 thousand coming to the final.
But getting PRL to agree to anything that might cost any money is an ambitious proposition so the chances of any change coming about are slim to none. However we can still help ourselves by arranging more Extras fixtures outside the A league. I’m sure that Saints and Gloucester would like return fixtures, and surely we could get friendlies at this level against Exeter, Quins and Sarries? Those sides all have biggish squads and academies that have similar needs to ours. This is before we get to the Welsh regions. Llanelli is furthest away and only 4 hours on the road, Newport just over 2 hours, these sides all have academies and large squads with their Welsh Premiership feeder clubs; we could arrange games with these sides just as we did in the amateur era.
Players like Michael Noone need to play and if the A league isn’t going to provide the games we have to go out and sort them ourselves rather than rely on PRL to solve our problems for us.