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Last Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Brain before brawn

By Phil Harlow

NATIONAL ACADEMY ALUMNI
Mathew Tait
Mathew Tait: centre* (above)
Matt Stevens: prop*
Olly Barkley: fly-half*
Ollie Smith: wing/centre*
Tom Rees: flanker
Ryan Lamb: fly-half
Anthony Allen: centre
* denotes full England international

English rugby has traditionally favoured brute force over silky skill, but the seeds are being sown for a new era based on artistry rather than power.

The aim of the RFU's National Academy is to create, in the words of its director Conor O'Shea, "a conveyor-belt of talent" to help the senior Test team flourish at the World Cup in 2011 and beyond.

And maximising the skills, not just the bicep measurements, of the players under the academy's watchful eye are seen as key to England's long-term success following their slide down the rankings.

Former JNA supremo Brian Ashton, who is now attack coach for the world champions, has already laid some of the blame for the national side's recent failures on the Guinness Premiership's perceived reliance on brawn over brain.

He says it is the reason players are reaching the international arena without the skills necessary to excel.

"We've really got to work hard at creating more skilful players," Junior National Academy head coach Jim Mallinder told BBC Sport.

"There are skilful players in the Premiership, but we can always increase the number of players with those skills and the quality of the skills they have.

"We must never get carried away with the physical side of things. You need strong and fit players who can physically impose themselves on the opposition but we can't get away from our responsibility to produce skilful players."

Mallinder has deliberately avoided selecting youngsters for the academy who already enjoy a major size advantage over their rivals, preferring players who rely on talent instead.

NATIONAL ACADEMY TARGETS
Members of the JNA squad go through their paces on the training pitch
PHYSICAL: developing speed, strength and conditioning
TECHNICAL: working with specialist coaches on a one-on-one basis
GAME UNDERSTANDING: encouraging tactical awareness and "the England way"
MENTAL: stressing the importance of mental strength in top-level rugby
LIFESTYLE: helping the players to develop as balanced individuals

The 19 players who did make the cut for this year's JNA intake are treated as professionals despite being aged just 17 and 18, and sometimes still at school.

During the intensive, week-long camps, they receive specialist coaching from Mallinder, Nigel Redman, England Sevens coach Mike Friday and former England hooker Dorian West.

In addition to driving home the importance of core skills - catching, passing, running, kicking and tackling - the training sessions seek to develop "thinking" players by asking them to explain why they took particular options on the pitch.

When the players come off the field, high-quality assistance is on offer at every turn.

In-depth video analysis of every training session highlights mistakes in forensic detail, while individuals are taken through the sport's finer points via one-on-one sessions on laptop computers to show potential improvements.

The attention to detail extends to regular "lifestyle coaching", covering media training, dietary advice, information on choosing an agent and planning for life beyond rugby.

If you had no academy system there would still be an England team - but it wouldn't be a very good England team

RFU National Academy director Conor O'Shea

Input from other sports is also welcomed.

The British diving team have offered insight into how their methods could be used by line-out jumpers, while former Olympic judo medallist Kate Howey has explained how useful techniques from her sport can be to rugby.

Tips on kicking and catching from Gaelic Football and Aussie Rules have also found a receptive audience, with much of this cross-fertilisation coming courtesy of Mallinder and Redman's inclusion on UK Sport's prestigious elite coach programme.

Mallinder is also keen to establish an "England way" - a basic style of play used by each team from the senior side right down to the age group sides.

"It doesn't mean every team has to play in exactly the same way, but there will be a common language and approach to the way we play the game," he said.

"It's similar to the way the Ajax football team has operated, where someone can slot in from the team below if there's an injury.

"The coaches, including Andy Robinson, sit down regularly to discuss the way the game should be played."

The academy system has produced talent like Mathew Tait, Tom Rees and Anthony Allen, and O'Shea is convinced it will benefit the senior Test side.

NATIONAL ACADEMY SET-UP
Dorian West keeps his eye on the technique of the youngsters at a JNA camp training session
Regional: 14 academies around the country
Junior: Under-18s
Intermediate: Under-20s
Senior: Over 20s

"There should be a continuous flow of high-quality international players with the National Academy as a kind of finishing school," O'Shea told BBC Sport.

"If you had no academy system there would still be an England team, but it wouldn't be a very good England team."

Despite the encouraging steps forward being taken by the academy, O'Shea says coaches need to trust youngsters in the Premiership if the players are to gain the experience required to prosper at the top level.

"It probably takes two or three years, once you've made the initial breakthrough at Premiership level, to be completely comfortable," he said.

"We're trying to accelerate that process. We want the players to get opportunities but there are short-term pressures in the Premiership.

"Almost all the coaches at the academy, myself included, have been involved in coaching in the club environment and we understand the pressure to get results.

"Of course we'd like more English youngsters to come through and for coaches to put their trust in them earlier and more often, but we realise the issues that the clubs face."



SEE ALSO
Backs lack basic skills - Ashton
18 Jul 06 |  Internationals
International rescue
28 Mar 06 |  Internationals
Ashton's legacy
01 Nov 05 |  English
O'Shea to head up RFU Academies
16 Dec 04 |  English
Mallinder takes RFU job
05 Aug 04 |  English


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