The balancing act of preparing young players for professional rugby

17 May 2021

Preparing young players for the ins and outs of professional rugby is a balancing act. It's not only the performance on the pitch that counts, but also the ability to step into the surroundings off it. 

On a matchday, Gallagher Premiership clubs will have a few additional bodies outside of their 23 who warm-up prior to kick-off, ready to step in if the unfortunate event of an injury occurs.

Bath Rugby Academy adopt a similar approach, with youngsters attending matches in a non-playing capacity, assessing the surroundings that they hope to step into.

“We had a load of 16-year-olds who came with us to the Under-18s match on Saturday, so they get used to what it feels like on a matchday,” Academy Manager Craig Lilley said.

“It gets them used to the environment and helps them socially with talking to people, so when they get put in at some point it’s not all new to them, they’ve kind of half experienced it.

“You see clubs do it really well in different ways. For example, they might get a young 10 to do some kicking at half-time in front of a crowd, just so they can align to the environment they are coming into.”

Several teens in the pathway have earned the right to do this with the first team this season, with some having progressed to feature in the league and Europe competition.

One in particular, Orlando Bailey, has become accustomed to a game day routine through his involvement with the senior side over the past few months, which Lilley believes will stand him in good stead for the future. 

He said: “From a development point of view, for him to have had experience like Zebre is invaluable.

“Travelling to a different country, staying in a hotel and in a bed he’s never stayed in before, and playing in conditions he’s not used to against a team who are stacked with internationals was a huge experience.

“For him to get through that game, then play in all these other games, is massive for him in the long run.”

The Academy’s method of integrating younger players into the system is part of developing their knowledge of the Bath environment.

It is also a nod towards a player’s mental health and providing the right platform, and correct information, for each person to succeed.

“Around people development, mental health is massive,” Lilley said.

“We do lots of workshops and presentations; we would have someone externally come in and do a talk on mental health. I’ve been a teacher since I was 21 and I’m 35 now, it’s getting bigger and bigger.

“You have to understand how you really challenge the players but also how you really support them. Too much challenge is unhealthy and too little challenge is comfortable so it’s trying to get that right for the individual all the time, as well as developing them in the best environment possible.”

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