Don Barrell has outlined his vision for helping develop English rugby’s emerging talent with education central to that evolution.
Barrell arrived at the RFU in July as head of Regional Academies after an 18-year association with Saracens as a player, coach and academy manager.
14 regional academies are licensed by the RFU and are funded by both the RFU and Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL).
The aim of the Regional Academies is to produce high-quality players to feed into the Premiership and international players for England.
And Barrell believes making players well-rounded off the pitch will improve them on it. He also feels creating plans that suit a player’s individual needs and helps support them will also improve their development.
'A world-class development model'
“My vision for the academies is a world-class development model where every club has an identity, but every player has a plan within that which helps them towards becoming one of the world’s best players.”
The Regional Academies were created in 2001 and outside of the 12 Premiership clubs they include Bristol and Yorkshire Carnegie.
Once contracted to a club, an academy or senior player will receive the support of a player development manager from the Rugby Players' Association.
Among a wide range of important matters such as considering the financial implications, this individual will provide advice and practical support to arrange further academic studies and work experience in tandem with their rugby career.
'Perspective outside of rugby'
“If you look at the best players we want people who can think, people who have perspective outside of rugby,” added Barrell.
“I think the discipline of having something to do outside of rugby provides you with perspective to drive you on further. The future players are those that are able to make decisions and adapt.
“For me the role of education is going to help players multi-task, if you just do one thing you can be good at it but you are going to lack a balance of perspective. If you do both you become organised with your time, communicate with other people and bring perspective from outside back in.”
The 14 academies have regular engagement with their education officers and as part of the audit process they have to go through there is a minimum standard alongside that, so every academy player will be doing a certain amount of education as part of their development.
Players will choose a number of different forms of education such as specialist colleges, vocational training, university and flexible learning courses.
Several of this year’s England U20 squad were studying for degrees alongside preparing for the World Championships in Georgia.
In fact, Worcester lock Justin Clegg finished his end of year university degree at the British Embassy in Georgia prior to England’s second game against Wales.
And Barrell believes it is vital to find the right type of education for individual players.
'A desire to learn and an ability to regulate'
“We believe in having rounded players who are going to come through,” he said.
“The pleasing thing is every club will have an education officer whose responsibility is the off-field care of the players below 18 and the contracted players in the senior academy.
“The responsibility of the club then sits in what is the best fit. If you are going to do it properly then you find something that the person is motivated to do, will stretch and challenge them and give them perspective and support them.
“The difficulty comes in fitting everything in and that is part of the challenge. The most important thing in young players is that desire to learn and the ability to regulate themselves.”
He added: “That all translates onto the rugby pitch, we want players who ask questions and input into their own careers. That is where is you see the difference between top players who have been in environments where they continually ask questions and who are used to being under pressure.”
So what role do the coaches have to play in all of this?
“The role of the coach is massive," Barrell continued.
“They are dealing with lads from 13-23 and if you think of the changes in that period in all aspects: physical, mental, social, then they are huge. We have to let young people discover things and the coaches are there to help them through the entire journey, not just from a rugby point of view, but also as a person.”