“You do the math. You solve one problem…and you solve the next one …” (The Martian)
England play South Africa on Saturday 2nd November in what will be their fourth Rugby World Cup final. Four years after their disastrous 2015 RWC campaign, at which they failed to progress to the quarter finals, England will be favourites to win the World Cup for the second time. The 16 players who feature in both squads are highlighted in bold font.
 Nick Easter replaced the injured Vunipola during the tournament.
So, how to explain this transformation? Sixteen of the 31 in the 2019 squad played in 2015, so let’s assume they have improved over the intervening four years and not been impaired by injury in any way. Head Coach Eddie Jones and his coaching team have had an impact, for sure; fifteen players new to the Rugby World Cup experience have adapted well and six of them were in the starting line-up against New Zealand in the semi-final match.
Of questionable value is England Rugby’s National Academy experiment. This was a process, started in 2004, whereby the supposedly best prospects were identified – the “talent identification” exercise that fascinates - and frustrates - many sports systems in equal measure. And here’s why it can be largely discounted as a contributing factor.
In 2009, 17 players between the ages of 16 and 22 were identified and “branded” as National Academy players by the England Rugby age-grade coaches at the time. The point of the exercise was to invest the RFU’s resources disproportionately in their development, in the expectation that they would all go on to represent England at senior international level and further, form the core of the Rugby World Cup squads in 2015 and 2019. This was the explicit and written purpose of the National Academy.
Four of that cohort played in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The mis-match between the 17 selected in 2009 and the 2015 RWC squad is particularly striking, in that only Anthony Watson – who was 15 when the 2009 National Academy cohort was selected - could reasonably have been “invisible” to the England age-group coaches. Six of the 2015 squad were already capped senior internationals in 2009, which nonetheless leaves 20 players who overtook their National Academy peers in the six intervening years and made the RWC squad ahead of them. Sam Burgess is excluded from these calculations as he was a rugby league player not under consideration as a rugby union National Academy player in 2009.
Four years later, when the 2009 National Academy cohort should have been at their peak:
only three of the 17 were selected in the 2019 RWC squad;
eleven of the 17 had never been capped;
the remaining three had been capped once, 7 times and 21 times respectively.
So, what went wrong?
Were the England age-grade coaches not very good at identifying talent? Absolutely not – they were very experienced and highly qualified coaches who were expert in distinguishing the best players within their respective age groups and could, as well as anyone else, make rational judgements as to which might go on to play for the senior England team in the future, based on current playing ability.
Was there a dramatic change in selection criteria or policy? No – the head of the National Academy in 2009 was Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach in 2015.
Did serious injuries or other life events mean that some of the 2009 players were no longer available for selection in 2015 and 2019? No – with one exception, who transferred to the NFL in 2017 having failed to break into the senior England rugby team, they are all still playing.
This phenomenon confirms the three things that are familiar to students of talent identification and development:
You do the maths: in 2009, there were hundreds of players aged between 11 and 15 - and therefore “invisible” to the England age-grade coaches - who had every prospect of developing to become better players than the identified National Academy players over time. Eight of the 2019 RWC squad are cases in point.
Know the typical development and maturation norms for your sport: over a period of 25 years, the average age at which England players are capped for the first time is a shade under 24 years. It is a late maturation sport which makes accurately forecasting future senior internationals, whilst they are in their teenage years, impossible.
The variables that influence the development of rugby players are many and complex: the Rugby Football Union has little influence over the development of young professional players who are contracted to the professional clubs. The dynamic - certainly not linear – nature of the development of young players is best left to the clubs until the players have demonstrated the attributes that are required of international players consistently, in their various club competitions. Age-grade international rugby such as the U20 World Cup is an excellent complement, but it is not the main ingredient.
The concept of accelerating the development of players early in their careers is valid; however, the numbers in this case show that identifying a closed, small group to the exclusion of a still-developing player population was not the best option. Nor could the Rugby Football Union influence the daily variables that affect player development adequately, or even at all. At APEX Global Sport Group, we work hard to understand the unique environmental factors that create the limitations and the opportunities our clients face.
To start a conversation about insights that might help your sport, email email@example.com