Products of the Bath Rugby Academy, Mark Lilley and Louis Messer have returned to where it all began as they look to develop the next crop of talent at the Club.
Lilley and Messer both spent their early years of their rugby careers in the Academy, with the aforementioned making 25 appearances in the first team before going on to play for Bristol, London Scottish and finally Rosslyn Park. Messer meanwhile took a different path after a serious injury bought a premature end to his playing career. The former England Students representative spent time coaching at Cardiff Metropolitan University before he joined Lilley back in the West Country at Bath Rugby.
Lilley, who re-joined the Club just over 12 months ago as Academy Pathway Coach said: “It’s really important that we’ve got three Bath men (including ex-player Ryan Davis), because that’s what we’re trying to create. We care a lot about this Club – it’s more than just a job to us. We’re three passionate people looking to produce the next Bath players coming through.”
Messer, also a Pathway Coach added: “When this job came up, it was time to come home and something I’d always aspired to be a part of. It was a little bit of unfinished business for me when it came to Bath, so it was great to have the opportunity to come back. What we’re working on is that last piece in the jigsaw puzzle in terms of player development to ensure we have a clear pathway and programme for players beyond the age of 18."
The Club has recently cemented partnerships with Beechen Cliff School and the University of Bath, relationships which they hope will prove to be fruitful in years to come. Beechen Cliff has unearthed the likes of Bath duo Kane Palma-Newport and Freddie Burns and the aspiration for Lilley and Messer is to see more players coming through the pathway to win first team honours.
Lilley explains: “The aspiration is to identify players at an early age and then offer high quality coaching, but equally to ensure that doors are open along the way for later developers. Hopefully some the guys that follow this pathway, will exit university, come into the first team environment and eventually get to play first team rugby. It’s a really long process and to create Bath first team players, it takes a lot of time and resource, but it’s a great opportunity for us to have consistency throughout the pathway and we have some good young players already working within the programme."
“Relationships are key to developing players at any club and the University gives the squad first team experience, where they are important players within a club and can learn about how to deal with the wins, losses and the process of learning together,” Messer adds.
“The quality of teams we’re coming up against in the BUCS Super Rugby league and the pressured environment the players are performing in on a weekly basis is an excellent stepping stone towards the Anglo-Welsh and A League. Even those boys that are not contracted with Bath Rugby, we’re keeping a close eye on their development and some have been playing A League as well, so it’s all about creating opportunities for young players and supporting a development pathway.”
One of the Academy’s key focuses is not only around identifying talent, but also nurturing them throughout University and giving those players the opportunities to showcase their talent in the professional environment.
Lilley added: “We’ve had guys that aren’t contracted at the Club that have played their part already this season. There have been 14 university players that have represented Bath United in the A League, so it’s not just players that are with the Club, but also from the University that have the opportunity to play a really high standard of rugby. This is a stepping stone to go on and represent Bath.
“It’s keeping a pathway open to the players at 17 or 18 who are in the Bath system that aren’t quite there yet to train full time with the first team, but could be late developers. We want to put time into them and give them opportunities to pick up a professional contract, instead of being judged purely on their ability as a 17-year-old.”
However, Messer is keen to stress that a lot of work in this partnership is built around not only preparing individuals for a life on the field, but also away from the sport. Current Academy protégées Josh Bayliss and Darren Atkins are just two players studying alongside their commitments with Bath Rugby, something which Messer feels is particularly important.
“The partnership is still very young, but it’s learning from what is already established at the Club. How you develop a player mentally and physically, but I think it has a different curve on it as well. We are actually helping players further their education, which is good for shaping the whole person rather than getting too engrossed in rugby. Knowing that there is an avenue if rugby doesn’t work out is really important in terms of having different aspects to focus on.”
Lilley admits that the partnership will flourish being so close to Farleigh, with the players from 15-years-old through to the Academy having the opportunity to train alongside the first team. Not only that, but Lilley and Messer have been able to draw upon the squad’s vast experience to help with their coaching techniques, something which has been hugely important.
“The Academy Player Development Group train on Monday nights, where we work with a large group of young men from 15-18. Some of these players also train up at Farleigh alongside the University on Saturday morning and get to see what they could experience further down the pathway, and as a professional rugby player. It sometimes links up well when Bath has a game on the Sunday – they’ll team run on a Saturday and there’s a clear vision from top to bottom of how the pathway is working. You’re seeing it visually, not just on a slideshow presentation.
“What I think was brilliant last weekend, was the input we had during our review of the game between Northumbria and the University of Bath. We had Matt Banahan watching and giving us feedback and asking questions around how we’re trying to play. He has had 12 years of Premiership experience and anything that we can pick up can only benefit us. Matt Garvey watched a large portion, which creates a really good environment. The fact that you’ve got guys like that listening in to what we’re trying to do and offering up solutions as to how to help us as coaches and the players is really beneficial.”
The history of the Club speaks for itself, but Lilley and Messer are clear about what the long-term aspirations are for the Bath Rugby Academy.
Messer explains: “From a young age, we used to be in the stands at the Rec watching. You get engrossed in the atmosphere and the prestige of wanting to become a Bath player. You don’t just see talent, you see players that want to be part of the Club. Now we’re capturing these players at 14-15 in Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset through the DPP and the whole pathway keeps banging the drum of what the Club is about.
“Bath is the city that we represent, and our region is incredibly important to us and you can be a part of that from a young age,” Lilley continued. “If you keep working hard and want to be part of the Club, then there are now clear opportunities. Our role as a pathway is to ensure that we keep the same messages from top to bottom – clear playing principles and philosophies, the way we treat the players and parents and help them develop the love for the Club that we all have. Ultimately, it would be great to have a clear group of home-grown players out on the Rec on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon playing alongside some of the world’s best in the Premiership. I think this partnership is only going to bring consistency and opportunities of identifying and developing these players.”