Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Where have all the young players gone?

Most of the headlines focused on the wind and the scaffolding.  This was the first Tigers game to be abandoned that I can remember, and at 70 minutes extremely close to the finish; the lack of bonus point has seemingly condemned us to be knocked out from the competition.  With 10 minutes to go a win was surely too far but a simple seven point try, and Tigers were attacking a disorganized Quins defence when the whistle blew, would have secured that point.

It seems that Quins will escape without an RFU or PRL penalty for their unsafe ground but that was not what caught my eye.  What I spotted was the lack of young players in the team.  Using an old fashioned definition of a young player as an "under 23" we started with only 4 (Terrence Hepetema, Tom Bristow, Fraser Balmain and Pablo Matera) players born after September 1st 1990.

This got me thinking "How often do we actually play young players, and how often does everyone else?"

So I looked it up.  Using the number of minutes played from I divided them into the total minutes played over the various different tournaments.

Obviously Perry Humphreys does have a Date of Birth but I couldn't find it.  Any help from readers is much appreciated.

In isolation that doesn't show us much.  We play youngsters much more in the LV Cup than the other tournaments (even with fewer against Quins) and in the Heineken Cup we make no pretenses and pick the best players only.

So what does everyone else do?  I have the above set up for every club but reproducing it would take up far too much room, so instead lets look at just the raw totals for the three main leagues:

Team U23 Mins % League
1 Llanelli 32.41%
2 Ospreys 31.97%
3 Newport 31.28%
4 Cardiff 28.96%
5 Connacht 28.61%
6 Wasps 25.24%
7 Toulouse 24.55%
8 Ulster 23.55%
9 Bath 21.32%
10 Perpignan 20.23%
11 Edinburgh 19.77%
12 Harlequins 19.74%
13 Saracens 19.49%
14 Sale 18.70%
15 Leinster 17.10%
16 Northampton 16.61%
17 Bordeaux-Begles 16.44%
18 Biarritz 15.60%
19 Glasgow 15.48%
20 Gloucester 14.82%
21 Stade Francais 14.62%
22 Zebre 14.49%
23 Exeter 14.14%
24 Worcester 12.51%
25 Bayonne 12.14%
26 Munster 11.77%
27 London Irish 11.53%
28 Treviso 10.52%
29 Newcastle 9.67%
30 Grenoble 9.03%
31 Montpellier 8.47%
32 Clermont 6.83%
33 Brive 6.52%
34 Leicester 5.28%
35 Toulon 4.83%
36 Racing 4.62%
37 Castres 2.90%
38 Oyonnax 0.03%

Suddenly it doesn't look so good.  With only the 4 French sides below us the argument that we don't play youngsters is clearly solid.  Compared to our peers we don't.  The Heineken Cup numbers are starker still.

Team U23 Mins % HC
1 Llanelli 38.85%
2 Connacht 31.06%
3 Ospreys 27.83%
4 Perpignan 23.47%
5 Cardiff 22.33%
6 Saracens 21.08%
7 Ulster 19.71%
8 Harlequins 19.44%
9 Gloucester 19.09%
10 Edinburgh 18.88%
11 Exeter 17.33%
12 Toulouse 16.64%
13 Northampton 15.91%
14 Treviso 14.18%
15 Zebre 13.54%
16 Montpellier 13.10%
17 Leinster 10.21%
18 Glasgow 9.15%
19 Castres 5.29%
20 Racing 4.90%
21 Toulon 4.89%
22 Munster 4.51%
23 Clermont 2.50%
24 Leicester 2.14%

Even if Manu Tuilagi had been fit and played every minute of the European campaign the numbers would only improve to 8.81%, again the case that compared to our peers youngsters don't play is sound.

Noticeably the 3 sides directly above us are 3 of the sides with a home quarter final.  If we'd have won against Ulster the 4 sides with the fewest young players would have all been the most succesful.  This does lead us to the point that we're in this to win not give youth a chance.  If we were top of the league and had a home semi-final then this wouldn't be an issue.

But we aren't top of league, we don't have a home quarter final, so this is an issue.

Economics play a part.  Llanelli don't make almost 40% of their team under 23 purely by choice, the fact that they can't afford to sign in many experienced pros forces them to play their younger players.

Similarly two of France's best sides for playing young players are Stade Francais and Perpignan.  Both have suffered from relative financial collapses in recent times and have been forced to blood more youth.  In Stade's case this has worked fantastically as they go into the 6 Nations break top of the Top 14. 

By the same measure Bath have managed to attract talents like George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson.  All were signed as first team players and they make up over 82% of minutes given to under 23s.  They aren't doing it because of some "give youth a chance" initiative but because their good players they've signed happen to be young.

At a recent open forum Cockerill declared that he wants to bring through players as much as anyone else, but only when they deserve it.  He put it more succinctly when he said "I'm not anti-young players, I'm anti-crap players".

There is an idea that Cockerill doesn't "blood" players, he picks the best ones.  That means that when Manu Tuilagi was our best centre at 19 he played every week, when George Ford was our second best fly half at 18 he covered for Flood and when Ben Youngs was our best scrum half at 19 he played too, but that he won't give players a chance if he doesn't rate them.

The numbers show that in all competitions Tigers have used 17 players under 23, only Gloucester (20) and Quins (18) have more.  But only 6 of those have made it into a matchday squad in the Premiership and those 6 have only played 761 minutes compared to the European average of almost 2,500 minutes.
The problem seems to be hanging on to the players as they get older.  Tigers have given 6 players born in 1994 (plus probably Humphreys) a run in the First XV this season, the most in Europe, but we have none from 1990 and only 3 from 1991.  Quins on the other hand have picked more "under 23s" but 10 of their 19 were born in either 1990 or 1991.

This missing generation is Andy Forsyth, Jimmy Stevens and Matt Everard.  Everard was released as not good enough; his slowly eroding game time at Wasps suggests this was the correct call, as unpopular as it was at the time.  But Forsyth and Stevens were rumoured to have been offered contracts and declined them.  

This might seem counter intuitive but does the Academy work too well?  It generates stacks of 18 year olds that can play first team rugby to the point that often we forget how young our players are and expect them to be further along as they slowly progress from promising 18 year old to 23 year old ready to play a serious part in the campaign.

During those 5 years the players become frustrated and too many of them are leaving.  Forsyth was a case in point, at the same age Dan Hipkiss and Matt Smith had played significantly less first team rugby than him, so it seems wrong to blame his leaving on Cockerill for not picking him, but clearly he was frustrated and wanted to play regularly. 

So what can be done to change that?  The long term trends are towards players breaking through at younger ages.  Whilst in the past there were outliers such as Paul Dodge (who if he made his debut today would have been born in 1997) since professionalism there has been a march towards younger players.  

This runs counter to ideas espoused by Cockerill at the recent open forum that as physicality increases players need longer to come through, especially in the tight 5.  Certainly in the front row there is growing evidence that the human body cannot stand the forces involved until it is 22 or 23 without succumbing to injury.  Anecdotal comparisons of Dan Cole with Alex Corbiseiro suggest this has some basis.

This season Tigers have made much greater use of the loan market than in previous years.  We have seen the top prospects go to Nottingham as usual, for a final polish and high quality game time, but we have also seen three young forwards go to Doncaster to learn the pressures of competitive rugby in what is a red hot title race, we have two forwards go to Coventry (so far for a single game) and seen three young players feature for Loughborough Students all in the increasingly professional National League One. 

Quins have used loans to sides like Esher, Ealing, Richmond and London Scottish to great effect as players get to play and the coaches get to see them in the competitive and often hostile environments they will face in the First XV.

There has been much anxiousness on some forums that players such as Catchpole or Purdy have barely featured and that they might be the next out of the door.  Any sane analysis of young players across Europe sees that attitude as exactly the problem of placing too much pressure on players too soon.  Both the two cited were born in 1994, Europe wide only 15 players born in 1994 have featured for their clubs in League action.  

Gael Fickou and Hallam Amos have already won international caps and Anthony Watson will surely join them soon.  The vast majority of players make their debuts in their first year out of the Under 20 set up, which means that the likes of Catchpole and Purdy should be in no rush.

No one can argue that Tigers are using young players in any great numbers.  The lack of examples in the difficult 20-23 age bracket produces a lack of confidence of fans in the system, increasing the fears that another generation of talent will have to fail to make it before changes are made.  Whether it is Cockerill as selector or the academy and scouting network not producing the players somewhere the production line has stalled.

Some changes have been made already, but do they go far enough?

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