- PJ Butler gave Gosforth Academy the target of achieving 300 offloads in one season
- Gosforth Academy reached the 2016/17 AASE League final
- Follow all the results from the 2017/18 AASE League here
The 2017/18 AASE League is underway. For those unfamiliar with the competition that sentence may not mean much, but that could soon change.
For nine years the league has been developing the next generation of stars and as of last season the competition has also seen the rise of a new style of rugby which may change the way the game is played.
For PJ Butler, a Newcastle-based coach who has been the AASE Scheme Manager at Gosforth Academy for five seasons, playing the game in the ‘right’ way is central to his approach.
Best wishes to the class of 2016 who finished school today after 2 (or 3) excellent years on the scheme... pic.twitter.com/7HnfgOVSeO— Falcons AASE Scheme (@FalconsAASE) May 27, 2016
And last season the side from the North East turned heads by playing an offloading-based game, not previously seen at this level.
The approach stemmed from a target set by PJ Butler and the team at the start of the campaign, to make 300 offloads in a season.
Butler himself played at Academy level, playing for Bath's age-grade team for two years before becoming a coach in 2007.
He took up a role as head coach of Linlithgow RFC in Scotland before moving back across the border to take up the job at Gosforth.
“What we really tried to do was get our players thinking differently about how the game should be played,” said Butler.
“It was pretty experimental but the players led it and enjoyed it and that’s crucial. They had to buy into the approach for it to be successful.”
To put the target of 300 offloads into context, most teams Gosforth played last season attempted around 10 offloads in a match while for Gosforth that figure was closer to 50.
Twitter kills the video quality a bit but here are the best of our tries from a promising preseason run out at Sedbergh on Saturday pic.twitter.com/6BIv0Z2hby— Falcons AASE Scheme (@FalconsAASE) September 6, 2017
The approach certainly worked. The secondary school, who are linked to Newcastle Falcons, had not made the AASE Championship play-offs since their entry into the tournament in 2013, yet they stormed to the final with a string of superb performances.
This included an impressive 40-0 semi-final win over Worcester College (Worcester Warriors AASE) to advance to the final, where they were defeated 19-53 by Exeter College.
“First and foremost we made sure the focus was on how we played rather than the results,” says Butler.
“We tried to get rid of common terminology in training sessions like ‘carry', ‘gain line', ‘take it in’ and ‘set it up’, we totally banned sayings like that to encourage our players to think differently. Instead the main word for us was 'space'.”
Butler admits that even he was surprised by the stats that his coaching team were seeing after the first few games last season.
“When we got the stats back it was amazing. We were up to around 60 offloads in a game and you could see on the pitch that the team were focusing on attacking space and keeping the ball in play.”
Butler says the approach wouldn’t have worked without an emphasis on the ‘CARDS’ skills: creativity, awareness, resilience, decision-making and self-organisation.
It is an approach pioneered by England’s age-grade sides and Butler says they encouraged a fear-free environment.
Player led set piece discussions this morning. pic.twitter.com/9e1zsYzXFF— Falcons AASE Scheme (@FalconsAASE) August 9, 2017
“Focusing on CARDS allowed the players to take control of the way we approached a game and it was massively successful.
“We didn’t want to constrict them in any way and if they tried things and it didn’t work we would never say ‘you shouldn’t have done that.’
The next step
The challenge now for Gosforth is to continue where they left off. This year’s AASE League kicked of last week with the 14 teams set to battle it out in separate north and south pools to try and make the play-off stages.
The league, originally named the Academic and Sporting Excellence League, was set up in 2008 to provide a competition structure for institutions offering an outstanding rugby programme alongside academic education for students aged 16-18.
All 14 teams are linked to the Academy of a professional side and over the years AASE has become a successful breeding ground for some of England’s household names in rugby including the likes of Jack Nowell and his Exeter Chiefs teammate Luke Cowan-Dickie.
Last season 18 of Gosforth’s 26 players were also part of Newcastle’s Academy side and this year they begin their campaign against Brooksby Melton College U18 (Leicester Tigers AASE) on Wednesday 13, October and Butler knows this season will be even tougher.
“I think we caught some teams by surprise last season but they will be more prepared this time. Our focus will remain on our own game we’ll see how far that takes us.”
You can follow all the fixtures and results from the AASE League here.