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Open Letter: Gruff Rees gives academy update and looks ahead to 2021 with optimism

Age Grade & Academy | 12th January 2021

In an open letter which was originally published in the digital matchday programme ahead of the Cardiff Blues v Ospreys game on New Year's Day, academy manager, Gruff Rees, reflected on a challenging 2020, while looking ahead to the New Year with plenty of optimism. 

First of all, I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

January seems like the perfect month to reflect on what was no doubt a challenging and at times difficult 2020, while looking ahead with plenty of optimism about the 12 months that are to follow.

I think we’d all agree that the one word to encapsulate the past year would be “unprecedented”. And I think it’s a word that perfectly captures the challenges and hurdles that the player and staff in our pathway, age grade and academy systems have faced over the past few months.

Looking back at pre-lockdown, it’s incredible to think how vibrant and healthy the Cardiff Blues academy and age grade landscape was positioned.

Our under-18 side enjoyed a very successful campaign, lifting the Regional Championship and also securing victory over a Scotland under-18 national side. But as a coaching team, the most pleasing thing for us from a player development point-of-view was that we ensured the whole squad were given fair playing opportunities over the course of the campaign.

Their success was reflected in the national age grade sides, with 10 Cardiff Blues players selected for Wales under-18 and a further seven players a part of the Wales under-19 set-up, including the likes of Jake Thomas, Theo Cabango, Ethan Lloyd, Rhys Anstey and Evan Lloyd - who are now a part of our academy system.

We were also proud to have supplied six academy players to the Wales under-20 squad for their Six Nations campaign, with Jacob Beetham, Mason Grady, Ioan R Davies, Ben Warren Theo Bevacqua and Gwilym Bradley all involved - and the latter two being prime examples of how our relationship with the Welsh Exiles programme is thriving at the moment.

As the lockdown was kicking in, we were getting set for the second half of the regional under-16 season. We had selected two exciting squads after a robust and detailed selection process and were really excited to see how this group would fare in a competitive environment.

It’s a really crucial and important aspect of our talent identification system, so we were naturally disappointed when this opportunity was taken away from those selected.

But the good news has been the support shown by the Cardiff Blues board towards the pathway, and ever since Nigel Walker joined earlier this year, he has been eager to get involved and we’re in constant dialogue with him, which has been really beneficial.

The club on the whole is passionate about developing from within, whether that’s staff or players, and the decision to appoint Aled James as our talent pathway manager certainly underlines that. He’s been excellent in his role and has an opportunity to focus on our vision, purpose and strategy within the age grade sides and ensure that aligns to the academy.

It also gives us an opportunity to develop and support specific individual development plans across the region, for players at multiple stages of their rugby development.

However, lockdown came upon us and brought its own unique set of challenges. As a group we looked for positivity, and in our fast- paced industry it gave all staff and players a very rare opportunity for reflection.

We felt that we had the right balance of mental engagement, which we have a big emphasis on at the academy, and physical preparation. We also held novel weekly nutrition workshops alongside Chris Edwards, the Welsh Rugby Union’s nutritionist, and it’s safe to say that some of us really pushed our culinary skills!

As time went by we were able to get more rugby-based feedback to the players and the summer saw a fantastic period of skill development and individual S&C focus at academy level.

Indeed, this period has been extended far more than we would have hoped for. However, while we constantly moan about a competition-led system in the development of players in Wales, the lack of access to this has really put the emphasis on the individual growth and learning of the players.

It’s important to acknowledge the huge contributions made by our academy staff, who, despite facing a series of hurdles and challenges, have stepped up their delivery and support for players over the past six months.

Will Cusack has been excellent in leading our strength and conditioning programme. This period has called for a lot of adapting, but his enthusiasm and detail has successfully created a climate where the players have taken a real ownership of their goal-setting and we’ve seen the benefit of that with some terrific, notable gains and results.

In addition, the cross-department discussions about each individual, and how we maximise each players’ potential, is testimony to the expertise, open-mindedness and creativity that we have tapped into on a weekly basis.

We have been blessed with some strong, forceful coaches in the past year but each with a nod to keep pushing our high performance environment. Consequently, it has been no surprise that T Rhys Thomas is adding so much intellectual property to the senior coaches, with real empathy and support for all players, but especially the ‘transition’ boys.

It was a thrill to have had Gethin Jenkins with us at the academy since 2018, but a call-up to join the national squad’s coaching team was too good to turn down. We are extremely proud of his progress as a coach. We were well aware of his qualities as a coach and have no doubt that he will thrive at the highest level.

I have been thrilled with Dan Fish’s progression to the coaching world. With fantastic playing pedigree under his belt, he has seen the benefit of working hard to gain experience, having worked with Cardiff & Vale College and Glamorgan Wanderers, and I can honestly say he has pushed some of our skills and attack delivery, as well as game understanding - for both forwards and backs - onto another level.

He has been ably supported by Craig Everett, who has stepped up from his age grade coaching role to the academy. Craig has really matured and understands the coaching process well alongside a positive, gregarious personality that is often been much needed, especially nowadays, while analyst Carwyn James plays a vital role in challenging the players and monitoring all data.

We are probably light of staff and the financial climate has made things hard, especially with valuable staff members such as Tom Haberfield, Carys Moggridge and Joseph Sowden getting good opportunities elsewhere. But, as always, we will rally and the senior staff are very supportive. We have a development plan, that is fully backed and approved by the board, and we are excited and confident that it will help us hit the ground running when we get back to normality.

Understandably, the lack of playing opportunities for the academy players has been hard and, with the exception of one productive outing against Dragons, we have had to channel our competitive work a bit differently through training.

But what has been pleasing, and links to the state of readiness mentioned above, is that all players who have stepped up to the senior environment have added value and thrived. Indeed, we have been incredibly proud of all the selection milestones of academy players who have graced the famous Cardiff jersey in recent months.

Our partnerships with the schools and colleges has been tested around the current landscape but I am thrilled to report that Aled James has made massive inroads with our work with each of our four ‘A’ license partners - Cardiff & Vale College, Coleg y Cymoedd, Ysgol Glantaf and Whitchurch High School - and we have worked in collaboration with these to run weekly masterclasses. While we recognise that cannot replicate the calendar of rugby we crave, the positive is that the players are getting collaborated, quality coaching that we discuss thoroughly.

Our region can only become stronger for these partnerships, as will our identification knowledge of the playing resources. It has also been well documented how we have extended this work to Christ College Brecon and communication with the likes of Hartpury College and Clifton College is clearly productive for us at the academy.

While we speak about the identification of the playing resources, this is probably the biggest challenge at the moment. Aled has done brilliantly to get some training routines prior to Christmas for the under-16 north and south sides, but this is shrouded in uncertainty and we are desperate to see the players under game conditions and make objective decisions on who could step up in the future.

This is doubly hard when we have many ambitious, bright and talented young men in the region and we hope to retain as many as we can in our regional system and via the outstanding establishments we work with, but there are many opportunities being presented elsewhere, especially when we also haven’t had eyes on the current 15’s schools groups also who we hope to work much closely with in the future.

I hope that all players and parents can understand how we support incredible individual growth, both on and off the field, for academy as well as age grade players - especially following the introduction of Aled’s new role.

Talent identification never sits still. The example of Ellis Bevan and working closely with Cardiff Met proves this, as does our ever- growing relationship with Cardiff University. Our work with the higher education establishments is a vital strand in our work programme and quality provision for players.

This will be a constant and I hope we can support BUCS Super Rugby in 2021, whilst the under-20 Six Nations sees hope for rugby in February for some of our eligible academy players.

In the meantime, we will keep pushing our work with our academy group and retaining as much contractual support to these talented young men as we possibly can and keep enabling academy players to succeed at the highest level.

Thank you as ever for your invaluable support. We’ll remain positive, ambitious and optimistic heading into 2021 as we hope to mould future Cardiff Arms Park legends, despite the inevitable challenges ahead.

Stay safe,

Gruff Rees