Bath Rugby Academy is on a mission. A mission to produce a 50% homegrown squad by 2023, developing a team with the city and its community at the core.
Despite the pandemic, the Senior Academy has continued to charge towards that goal, delivering a detailed programme of training and development.
We caught up with Academy Manager Craig Lilley on developing young talent, the loan system, and why homegrown is so important to the Club.
Tell us about the Bath Rugby Academy programme.
The academy programme runs from under 15s all the way up through under 23s with selected players then progressing into the senior team.
We work within our region – Dorset and Wiltshire and part of Somerset – through the Developing Players Programme (DPP) to connect with clubs and schools in identifying emerging talent. From there we select the players with the greatest potential to join our under-15s Bath academy programme, working with our best coaches to help develop them through to the under-18s programme.
At that point, they would progress into the Premiership Rugby Under 18 League and, for those players with the potential to play at a higher level, into the senior Bath Rugby Academy squad.
How does a player get that call-up to the senior squad from the Academy?
Hoops and I are in regular conversation about the players in the senior academy squad, and how we progress them into the first team. We’re aligned on where the gaps are in the current squad, where the requirement is, and what opportunities we can give those academy players to maximise their development.
We’ve seen recently a number of players who have made that transition, with both Orlando Bailey and Kieran Verden making their debuts back in September in the home win against Worcester Warriors. Ethan Staddon and Ethan Richards are also the latest in a line of home-grown players to make their senior debuts. Ethan is now the youngest ever Bath Rugby player to play in the Premiership at just 18 years and 156 days old, which is an outstanding achievement.
For players who aren’t necessarily ready or required to make their debut in the first team, the loan system offers an opportunity to gain valuable rugby experience. How has that been impacted by Covid over the last 12 months?
Over the last year, due to Covid, we haven’t been able to loan out a huge number of players but when we have utilised that opportunity, it’s proved really beneficial. We have typically worked closely within the BUCS league (British University and College Students) to increase player’s game time for those in their first or second year of the academy programme while year three players, such as Ollie Cattel who is currently on loan to Ampthill RFC, would spend time with a second-tier club.
Fortunately, we have a few international players on duty so that presents a great opportunity for our senior academy players to have exposure to the first-team environment, which is accelerating their development.
The biggest frustration for our young men is the lack of competitive fixtures. With there being no Championship, National 1, BUCS Super Rugby, or Premiership Cup / Shield Competitions it has been very tough to replicate match practice.
However, what the RFU has done with the England U20s, is put on lots of activities for those players to take part in. They’ve arranged fixtures and training, so those guys have been able to go off and get some exposure and play against people their age and stage of development, in addition to training with the club.
What’s the benefit of the loan system?
We believe it’s a helpful life experience, exposing them to different environments, coaches, players, and processes. It gives them crucial game time in a senior training environment that we might not be able to offer them at that moment.
We talk to any loan players regularly throughout the week and review the footage of any games they’ve played in to see how they’re getting on. We also keep in contact with the coaches of that club to get their opinion of the player; what they’re doing well, what they can improve on. And of course, we make sure we’re across any strength and conditioning work they need to be maintaining and work with the loan club to co-ordinate programmes.
What’s the best part of helping to develop these players?
For me, it’s all about maximising people’s potential. If we get that right, and they put in the work required to get there, we’ll see results. Obviously, it’s great when academy players progress into the first XV, but it’s also really rewarding seeing players who don’t necessarily progress into senior-level continue their rugby journey within their local clubs.
I think that's just as important to continue creating a real love for the game and keeping players involved, whether that’s playing for your country, professional club, university, or local league. And if we can nurture that passion for the game within Bath and the wider community, that’s a huge bonus.
The Club has outlined its mission for 50% of the senior squad to be local to Bath by 2023. Why is that so important?
We believe it’s important for the club to help develop players who, in addition to skill and rugby ability, have a deeper emotional connection to Bath.
If you know the players around you, if you’ve grown up with them or with similar surroundings, you have a shared experience that we believe creates a unique bond. It develops a powerful affiliation to the club and a desire to pull on the Blue, Black, and White to represent your home and the people around you.