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Welsh rugby's best young players are being lured to England in major threat Wales are fighting to stop; Welsh starlets are being signed up by colleges in England.

Byline: Simon Thomas

It's one of the biggest issues facing Welsh rugby right now - how to hold on to our young talent.

It's a continuing challenge which was illustrated once again by the recent U18s Six Nations Festival in England.

Wales' best performance in that competition was a 28-17 victory over Scotland at Worcester's Sixways Stadium.

Their four tries were shared out, two apiece, by young Cardiffians Louis Zammit-Rees and Ioan Lloyd.

They are both richly gifted talents who look to have bright futures ahead of them.

But rather than being on the books of Cardiff Blues, they are employed in the west country.

Winger Zammit-Rees, who recently scored this remarkable 80-yard try, is on the books of Gloucester and has already made his senior debut, while Lloyd has signed a four-year deal with Bristol.

So how has this happened? Well in both cases, it's a product of them being offered places at English colleges.

Llandaff RFC product Zammit-Rees is studying at Hartpury, which has a close link-up with Gloucester RFC.

And Lloyd - who went to Glantaf school and played his junior rugby for CRICC - is at Clifton College, which has a similar connection with Bristol.

These aren't isolated cases either.

At one point in recent times, Hartpury had some 19 players who were eligible for Wales.

You can also look at the likes of Callum Sheedy, Matt Protheroe, Tommy Refell and Sam Costelow.

Fly-half Sheedy, from Cardiff, and full-back Protheroe, of Swansea, are both with Bristol, having studied at Millfield and Hartpury respectively.

Flanker Refell and fly-half Costelow were both nurtured at Pencoed RFC and both have played for Wales U18s and U20s.

But they are both with Leicester, after attending Wyggeston & Queen Elizabeth I sixth form college in the city and Oakham School in Rutland respectively.

You also havethe case of Stephen Varney, who scored two tries for Italy in their victory over Wales in the U18s Festivals last weekend.

He is from Pembrokeshire and is the son of former Neath flanker Adrian Varney, but he has been snapped up by Italy - who he qualifies for through his mother - after impressing for Hartpury and the Gloucester RFC Academy side.

And when he faced Wales, he was up against two college colleagues in Zammit-Rees and centre Tom Mathews.

Of course, Hartpury was also where Ross Moriarty attended ahead of linking up with Gloucester.

You can look too at scrum-half Harry Randall, who was born in Slough, but grew up in the Amman Valley and captained Wales U16.

He then switched allegiance to England and is now at Bristol, having impressed while at Hartpury.

If you look at the most recent Wales U20s squad, in addition to Costelow, there was former Llanishen RFC winger Alex Morgan, who is with the Gloucester Academy, and prop Nick English, from Caldicot, a Hartpury student on Bristol's book.

And then there's the case of prop Harry Fry, who was schooled in Radyr and began his rugby journey at Penytrch RFC, but made his debut for England U18s earlier this year having gone down the well-trodden Hartpury/Gloucester Academy path.

So, having players lured away by scholarships at English colleges is a continuing issue for Welsh rugby.

You hear stories of scouts from across the bridge turning out in force at regional U18s tournaments, looking to pick off the cream of the crop.

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How then do we respond to this threat?

Speaking to those involved at the sharp end, it's clear the emphasis is on convincing youngsters they don't have to go to England to achieve what they want in terms of both rugby and education.

In the east and in the west, the message is the same. The pathway is here.

Former Ospreys coach Gruff Rees is now Academy Manager at Cardiff Blues.

Both Zammit-Rees and Lloyd had already moved to England by the time he took up the post last summer, but he was keen to know why.

Richard Whiffin on Louis Rees-Zammit wonder try

"When I came in I knew the backdrop of a lot of talent going across the water from Cardiff, in particular," said Rees.

"I wanted to know some reasons why that was taking place.

"I met the parents of the two lads in question and it wasn't based on negative experiences of the Blues pathway.

"Cardiff Schools was a really good experience for them and they'd had a great season with Blues U16s South.

"But they had these fantastic opportunities in England and maybe there weren't guarantees of where things were going to go here.

"They both see themselves as potential Welsh players in the future, so it's important to maintain a relationship and hopefully we can have a discussion about their next senior contract being with the Blues."

Rees says the threat posed by English colleges and clubs is a very real one and something that needs to be addressed if the talent drain is not to become really damaging.

"At a lot of our age group games, there are English scouts everywhere," he said.

"They are quite brazen some of them with the tracksuits they are wearing.

"That is tough to swallow.

"Some of the youngsters we are speaking to now are being courted with some fantastic opportunities in some great places in England.

"For a lot of youngsters and parents, it is a head turner.

"Our U16s played Gloucester a month or so ago and we won 83-0.

"The challenge for us is holding on to our most talented kids.

"We have got some global superstars who have come through the regional Academy system over the last ten years and we should be proud of that.

"But there is an assumption that we will just keep on producing and there's not an endless supply.

"If we continue to lose kids to England, there's not always going to be someone ready to take their place."

The two unheralded youngsters who are threatening to ruin the chances of these Wales World Cup hopefuls

The fight to change things

So how do we halt the exodus?

Rees believes the answer lies in identifying talent early and selling what's on offer locally to both the youngsters and their parents.

"We have 18 Academy players at the Blues, ranging in age from 17 to 21," he explained.

"We are going younger with our new intake this summer, for reasons that are apparent with players getting attention from elsewhere.

"If you can identify the right talent, you have got to do it early and sign them up.

"We have contracted three of our U16 group from this year and four of our current year 12s.

"So we are going a year or two years earlier than we have in the past.

"It's about bringing people in at optimum age for their development, but also trying to link up with establishments I believe in."

That's where the four schools and colleges with A Licences in the Blues area come in - Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Glantaf, Coleg y Cymoedd, Whitchurch High School and Cardiff and Vale College.

"I see those as my four mini academies almost," said Rees.

"Each has their own rugby programmes, but some great education provision as well.

"What we are able to offer is definitely just as good in terms of educational options and certainly rugby wise.

"There are some really talented coaches in those four areas supported now by two full-time Blues pathway coaches.

"We are looking at 120 boys getting a great service in terms of rugby and their education.

"The right education provision is very important.

"I have been quite critical of players who have just become almost rugby robots.

"I want to create guys who are well rounded creative people and that includes having the right education behind them."

He continued: "Perhaps some of the English establishments sell themselves better in rugby terms than we do.

"Hartpury/Gloucester is becoming a successful brand.

"We have got to be better at talking up what we have here.

"We are probably very Welsh in that we don't celebrate our successes.

"The Blues have more home-grown talent than any side in the Champions Cup. Our turnover rate from Academy to seniors is terrific.

"We probably don't put that out there as much as we should.

"I have sat with so many parents this year and said yes there are these great opportunities in England, but we also have this rugby and educational provision available here.

"I think some parents are living the dream and thinking this English route will take their son to being a professional rugby player.

"But around recruitment comes a lot of false hope sometimes.

"You will have a third, fourth choice scrum-half within the region at U16s being told they could be first choice at Gloucester and suddenly that sounds appealing to a player and a parent, where it may not necessarily be true."

What's happening in west Wales

Over in the Scarlets region, Llanelli's Colege Sir Gar plays a key role in nurturing young talent, with the likes of Scott Williams, Gareth Davies, Josh Adams and Samson Lee all having studied there.

The college's Rugby Academy Director, Euros Evans, echoes the viewpoint that teenagers don't have to head to England to further their ambitions.

"The strength of our programme is our partnership with the Scarlets and the pathway through to the professional game," he said.

"Without that, we wouldn't be able to compete.

"We've got a good record of producing young players for the Scarlets.

"We haven't suffered as much as other regions.

"But Hartpury are becoming more active in our area, contacting players and offering them scholarhips.

"It's a state school, but those scholarships include free accommodation. So it is a challenge for us.

"When a 16-year-old is making their choice over further education, what's on offer at Hartpury, Clifton College and Millfield is certainly a lure.

"But then we can show them what we have to offer and go through the pathway with them.

"Hartpury have better facilities, through being a higher education establishment.

"But what we deliver in terms of our programme is identical to them.

"What we have got here is fit for purpose.

"We've got a 3G playing surface, a new sports hall, a gym and we also make use of the indoor barn at Parc y Scarlets.

"The facilities are here, the pathway is here, the academic provision is here, so there is no need for youngsters to look to England in order to further their ambitions."


Credit: Picture by LNC Images

Wales U18s trio Tom Mathews, Ioan Lloyd and Louis Zammit-Rees are all based in England

Credit: Picture by LNC Images

Gloucester's Louis Rees-Zammit scored two tries for Wales U18s against Scotland last week

Credit: Picture by LNC Images

Bristol fly-half Ioan Lloyd also crossed the Scottish line twice for Wales U18s

Credit: Huw Evans Agency

Cardiff Blues Academy Manager Gruff Rees, the former Ospreys coach

Credit: Getty Images

Louis Rees-Zammit (right) made his Gloucester debut against Bath earlier this month, which saw him playing alongside Danny Cipriani

Credit: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Welsh teenager Ioan Lloyd in action for Bristol against Northampton

Credit: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Pencoed product Sam Costelow is on the books at Leicester

Credit: Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

Wales scrum-half Gareth Davies is one of a number of stars who progressed from Colege Sir Gar to the Scarlets
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Wales Online (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 28, 2019
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