Worcester have unveiled ambitious plans to extend their youth development tentacles that will gladden their supporters and madden their critics – and have made Birmingham their main target area.
Warriors academy manager Mark Hewitt told The Birmingham Post about a new scheme that has established four centres of excellence across the West Midlands, at Coventry RFC, Telford, Sixways and Birmingham University, each designed to attract the region’s most talented players.
Hot prospects as young as 13-years-old will be given coaching and conditioning and nutritional advice, with each satellite centre projecting an intake of around 30 players, giving the Premiership club a yearly tranche of more than 100 of the area’s best players.
Furthermore Hewitt also revealed plans to increase the programme in its second year with the creation of two more Player Development Groups – potentially near Hereford and a second site in Birmingham as Worcester try to reclaim ground already lost to rivals like Gloucester and Leicester.
The hope is that the best players from each location will form an Elite Player Development Group, be based at Sixways for three hours a week, rising to 15 hours from the age of 16, and ultimately feed into the Worcester first team.
“We are playing catch-up to a certain degree,” Hewitt admitted. “If you look at Exeter, they have had so much good press about their academy but they have two centres. Truro College, for all the best kids in Cornwall and Ivybridge Community College for the best kids in Devon. That process is in place, they have contact time and they have now added a further layer to that at Bicton College which has residential.
“You go to Hartpury, Gloucester’s academy basically is Hartpury College. They run six teams a week down there. It’s ridiculous. All these kids go there to do 16-18 education and a lot of them stay on to do post-18.
“They are not even recruiting. Kids are voting with their feet, ‘I want to go there it’s got a rugby programme’. So they are a step ahead of us. Leicester are a step ahead of us because they have got their kids in two schools, Leicester Grammar and Oaklands. That’s the biggest challenge we have to do, 16-18 and 18+. You look at England 20s. We have got no-one in the England 20s next year which isn’t good for our club.”
Hewitt believes Worcester have to be more proactive finding talent outside the traditional confines of the county. Shropshire, Birmingham, Warwickshire and Hererfordshire all feature as untapped sources and the former Marine is unapologetic about that process.
But – and many clubs with their own Mini, Junior and Colts set-ups will snort at this – he sees the scheme, which is being partially funded by the RFU, as co-existing with local efforts rather than challenging them.
Indeed he makes it clear that players in the PDG and even EPDG groups would still be available for club and school rugby, merely that the best would hopefully go on to play their senior rugby in Blue and Gold.
His rationale is that Warriors’ standing as a top-flight club justifies their primacy in the player development market-place.
“The sad thing about this club is we have never really done anything in Greater Birmingham, which I can’t believe. It’s not just the kids at the rugby-playing schools, it’s about the kids who aren’t playing rugby – the athletes. It’s huge. Not just for playing but also as a support base, for commercial and sponsorship – that’s what the business is.
“This club has just been about Worcester and Worcestershire and it’s not, I see it and Dean sees it and everyone at the club now sees it, it’s all about the West Midlands. I will probably be shot for saying that by people from Moseley or Cov but that is the realism.
“Everyone has to understand where they are. look at Bedford as a model. Bedford know they can’t be at the top but they don’t want to be at the bottom, everything is about them being a top-end Championship club, funded and resourced accordingly. I think everyone realises where they can get to realistically the game would be far better.
“We are trying to identify young kids with potential, we can help them advance. They will be in this system but at some point they may reach their peak and they will go back and drop into the system somewhere else.
“Not every kid we get into our PDG, EPDG is going to make it – that’s the nature of professional sport. But I would like to think anyone who is going to be involved is going to come out a better player and drop into a level where they are going to be a regular starter.
“It could be dropping into Moseley, it could be dropping into Tier Three, Four or Five, but anyone who has been involved will be a better player for it.”