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Meet the man tasked with unearthing the next generation of Cardiff Blues stars

Age Grade & Academy | 11th November 2020

With 32 members of the senior squad being graduates of the Cardiff Blues academy, it is clear that a passion for developing homegrown talent is a priority philosophy at Wales’ Capital Region. 

But have you ever wondered who is the man tasked with unearthing the next Shane Lewis-Hughes, Tomos Williams or Owen Lane? 

That man is Aled James, who is Cardiff Blues’ talent pathway manager. 

The former Wales rugby league international is heading into his third season at Cardiff Arms Park, having initially joined as an under-18 coach alongside Craig Everett. 

However, as he embarks on new responsibilities within the pathway structure, James is excited for the challenges ahead, as he is tasked with identifying the next crop of homegrown superstars. 

“I’m really excited. It’s a new role, as a talent pathway manager, and I think I’m right to say that it’s the only one within the regions at the moment,” said James, who also coaches with Bargoed in the Championship. 

“When it comes to talent recruitment and talent discovery, from under-15 to under-18, my remit will be going out to find those players and putting a process in place to maximise their developments within a certain period of time. 

“When you look at the investment the club has to put into these young players, and the staff that comes with it, it’s a real big investment. 

“We need to make sure that we maximise that and we’re efficient with it. We have to be more objective in terms of recruitment and what we’re looking at. 

“You look at Mason Grady as an example, he came into our system as a 16 year old and signed his professional contract earlier this year. He’s probably got one of the highest ceilings within our academy in terms of where he can go. 

“His frame and speed lends itself to the professional game and he’s going through the process of discovery and learning now. 

“Being within the senior environment has accelerated that, and that’s all we can ask for. In Mason’s case you can look at his progress and say that we’ve done our job.” 

With the likes of Mason Grady, Alun Lawrence, Max Llewellyn and Iestyn Harris signing their first professional deals with their home region over 

the summer, James admits it’s a satisfying part of the job to see players hitting new heights in their careers. 

The former Crusaders and Widnes centre added: “When you see those players graduating and progressing to hit different milestones brings the satisfaction. 

“The level of service they’ve received as individuals who’ve allowed them to get there, as would the experience and exposure to different environments they’ve gained. 

“We’re trying to replicate games as much as we can within our training with both academy and age grade players, and that’s to make it as realistic as possible, as that will help the transition a lot. 

“Speaking on behalf of all the coaches, because they invest a lot of time away from the training field to put the detail on these players’ learnings, seeing these boys kicking on is great. 

“However, you’re always fully focused on the next group of players that falls within your remit, so it’s a never-ending cycle which is a huge part of the challenge that I enjoy.” 

As a young player, James came through the system before the regional game, playing alongside the likes of Gavin Henson, Robin Sowden Taylor and Nicky Robinson for Wales under-16. 

Following a stint with Glamorgan Wanderers, James switched codes and turned his attention to rugby league. After representing the Great Britain Students side on a tour to Australia, James would go on to represent Widnes Vikings, Sheffield Eagles, Crusaders and South Wales Scorpions, winning 13 caps for Wales. 

Having also featured for Aberavon and Cross Keys upon his return to rugby union, James hopes to use his own playing experiences to benefit the region’s promising youngsters both on and off the field. 

He added: “I think you have to rely on your own experiences in the game because it forges how you want to think about the game in the future. 

“What’s been really pleasing about this process is I’ve had an opportunity to complete my level four badges at the same time. A lot of the theory work I’ve been able to apply that into a practical delivery and assignments. 

“One thing has been coming up with our own talent framework - what that looks like and what type of player we’re looking for. 

“So I have leant back on some experiences by utilising previous coaches and some of the coaches and member of staff that we’ve got here, to try to visualise that framework and be clear in what we’re trying to achieve and what type of player we’re looking for here at Cardiff Blues.” 

There has been much talk about players crossing the border for educational opportunities, but Cardiff Blues have formed working relationships with the likes of Hartpury College and Clifton College in recent months. 

However, James identifies the benefits of players tasting new life experiences and believes they can use these to become better all- rounded rugby players in the future. 

“Ideally you want to keep them all in Wales, however, we’re realistic that some people move for academic reasons as well as their want and desire to taste a different environment,” explained the talent pathway manager. 

“First of all there are fantastic opportunities available here on our doorstep. The A licensed schools within the region - Glantaf, Coleg y Cymoedd, Cardiff & Vale College and Whitchurch - all offer fantastic educational and rugby programmes and we’re very fortunate to have superb working relationships with these household establishments. 

“However for some boys and their families, they might feel opportunities elsewhere is a benefit. 

“I think that can only make the person better and everything we’re trying to do here is aimed towards developing the person first. If they’re happy at home and at school, and they’re growing as people, then their rugby progress with follow. 

“That’s something we’re aiming to achieve, both through our structure here and through the respective colleges and schools. 

“We know that we might see a couple of players having opportunities with these schools across the border every year, but with the links we have to those establishments, they’re more likely to come back, hence the time and resource we’re investing in them. 

“The player, and his educational needs and desire, come first for us and we’ll develop them as much as we can after that.”