Bath Rugby U18s have come to the end of their Premiership Rugby U18 League season and despite narrowly missing out on Finals Day by a point, the side have plenty to look back on with pride as they continue to develop through the Bath Rugby Pathway.
In a competition that allows Clubs to bring the best young players from their respective regions together, the League has afforded the platform for high potential players from within Bath’s player pathway to gain crucial experiences.
In Craig Lilley’s first season as Academy Manager, he has worked with Academy Pathway Coach Louis Messer to oversee the U17s and U18s within the player pathway. This covers the U18 Academy League programme; a programme that has fuelled a huge amount of learning and enjoyment. Lilley and Messer have analysed the campaign and are already looking ahead to next year with excitement.
Lilley said: “Delivering individuals from our pathway into the first team is a key objective the Academy must fulfil as we continue to target a 50% home-grown squad, and that journey really begins to take shape for some players during the course of this competition. We have huge excitement about how many young men from within our current group can progress further in the coming years.
The Academy Manager added: “It has been great to see the players develop and adapt as the season has gone on. The most exciting thing about the U18s League is that it provides a block of games which gives our players the opportunity to progress their understanding of the game, and to learn together from their experiences. The improvement we have seen from the group and from individuals has been incredible. They have been exactly the types of fixtures, and level of competition that our young men have needed to take them to the next level.”
Bath finished fifth behind Gloucester, Bristol, Saracens and London Irish in a fantastically competitive Southern Conference where just one point separated third, fourth and fifth places. The young Bath side narrowly missed out on the U18s Finals Day following a 31-19 defeat at the hands of West Country rivals Gloucester Rugby on the final day of the regular season. Earlier in the campaign victories were achieved against Saracens, Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs and the players gained invaluable match experience in their narrow defeats to Bristol, London Irish and Gloucester.
Reflecting on a challenging season in the Southern Conference of the Premiership Rugby U18s League, Lilley discussed the steps both the squad and the coaching team have taken to build the key relationships that have ultimately driven their development this season.
“The U18 Academy League is a crucial stepping-stone for young players with high potential to begin to prepare them for the next stage of their rugby journey. For those players that don’t progress to a Senior Academy Contract here with us, they have had some outstanding experiences that will hold them in good stead moving forwards for the next part of their journey and we ensure there is a careful process in place to look after all of the U18s that are moving onto their next steps.”
“There have been many areas where I feel we have developed as a squad, but I think the most important thing that has developed is the relationships the players have built with each other and the staff who have worked with them on their journeys. The trust and vulnerability people have shown has meant we have all been able to really kick on, both as individuals and as a cohesive group. The League has given our players the chance to pull on the Blue, Black and White for the first time in a meaningful competition and build their understanding of the way the Club play.”
The way the U18 squad has been developed and the composition of the squad, with regards to number of U18 and U17 players, is also a crucial aspect of how high potential players within the player pathway are supported to gain experiences and maximise their development.
“50% of the squads we have selected throughout the season have been made up of U17 players. As a result, these players will have taken some huge learning moments that will help to accelerate their progression as players and, most importantly, moments that provide them with reference points, a clearer understanding of the areas within which they will need to continue to learn and develop.
“Our system is deliberately built that way, and those who were relatively young last season, who are now the older players in the squad, have connected with the U17s incredibly well this year. To witness the way they have challenged and supported them has been a pleasure, very impressive, and has made a massive contribution to how the whole squad has developed.”
Lilley continued:“The learning environment promoted during the U18s campaign is really important to the Club, providing the players with opportunities to play an active part in leading meetings, reviews and shaping the game that we want to play.
“The way we are growing in this area is a big positive, and we will continue to review this and make even more progress. The way we have been able to implement off-field learning opportunities has been vital for developing the squad, particularly as we only see some players face-to-face twice a week.“
Academy Pathway Coach Louis Messer added: “There have been two major learnings this season. The integration of our U17s into the squad has been positive and very interesting for us to see as a group. The players took on huge responsibility to build relationships, and there have been some amazing moments where a number of our U18s have driven the evolution of our game and the approach to training.
“That realisation of the importance of developing a focused approach to training has had a genuine impact on performance. We challenged the group back in November not only to have a playing DNA through our game model, but also adding a training DNA to their thought process and maximising every minute to improve, both on and off the pitch. Seeing the connection between the two concepts grow over the season has been awesome.”
The Pathway Coach has been impressed with the players’ outlook and attitude, citing this as one of the key components to their development this campaign and something that has undoubtedly had an impact of their game understanding.
Messer continued: “The group’s understanding of how our defence fuels our attack and linking it all together has been a key development over the course of the season. This massively changed the players’ mindset towards their discipline and the defensive side of the game, to the point where they have built a huge excitement around getting the ball back to feed the counter-attack. The result against Saracens was an incredible example of this.
“It is important to support the group to focus on specific areas of the game they needed to build to become better equipped to flourish in a senior environment – whether that be with us, or within the Club’s partnership programme with The University of Bath for example. The Schoolboy game is a platform for these players to play, to explore the game and to develop; however the Academy League provides a competition environment that truly challenges them, and affords them the chance to really grow their appreciation of the game as they begin to look beyond the age-grade system”
At the forefront of everything we’ve done this season, we really wanted our players to enjoy the experience and remember their time as an U18s in years to come with good memories. I think we’ve really achieved that, and we are proud of every player this season.”