New talent model to refresh Junior Wallabies lock in rising stars: Whitaker

by Sam Phillips

A fresh push to retain Australian rugby's brightest schoolboy stars will rejuvenate the Junior Wallabies program and develop Australia's next generation of Wallabies stars, according to Rugby Australia high performance boss Ben Whitaker.

The national governing body unveiled the changes to its national talent management model on Friday after identifying the need to up the ante on the talent retention front.

The new structure will now start targeting boys from the age of 15 and align them with a state-based academy.

Those players will eventually progress through national tournaments to U17 and U18 state sides, the new U19 Rugby Championship and NRC with the eventual target Super Rugby and Test rugby.

The detail behind that outline is more complex but the end goal is simple.

Rugby Australia are eager to deepen the talent pool from which the Junior Wallabies, Super Rugby clubs and eventually the Wallabies will have to call upon.

One of the best ways to judge the changes will be via the performance of the Junior Wallabies, who last finished in the World Rugby U20s top four in 2011.

"You look at the performance of the U20s and you are benchmarking your top talent," Whitaker said.

"We've had issues in the past with getting our best players there due to a clash with Super Rugby but it's also a measure of your talent depth, we believe.

"This is as much about talent depth and we believe talent depth is a real key component of this."

England's talent development model is to be admired.

They have featured in six straight World Rugby U20s finals and Whitaker pointed to their pathway as a significant factor in that streak.

"England have got a four year lead in to the U20s," Whitaker said.

"It's done through academies but also by recognising the role the clubs and the schools play.

"The kids are on dedicated and aligned programming and that's something we want to really focus on.

"That way we have this one plan for a 15 or 16-year-old which extends right through to 20s and beyond.

"In the past we haven't worked or aligned ourselves well enough with the school system or the U18s system and we have identified that."

The success of the Junior Wallabies may provide a measuring stick for this program in years to come but that side will only grow in stature if Rugby Australia is able to retain the top talent they identify as teens.

Whitaker believes the identification process is solid but competing with NRL clubs who often vie for the same signatures is another matter entirely.

"One of the things we have to recognise is that the identification within the system... while we can prove it has been pretty good," he said.

"Where we have been getting beaten is the recruitment.

"Kids are choosing to do others as they aren't being informed or not being sold the value that sits in our system.

"We have upped our game in that regard over the last 12 months.

"That doesn't mean we will keep them all and that's just a fact of life.

"Different things are going to entice or interest other players.

“But we have plenty to sell around opportunity and development in our game.

“We've invested a bit more into putting in some structure there

“In the past we have been asking one or two people to do it all but now we have the opportunity to branch that out far more.”

Another competition for Australian schoolboy talent lies across the ditch.

Some may point to star Queensland schoolboy Campbell Parata signing with the Crusaders as proof the current model is not functioning as desired but The Southport School flyhalf is a unique case.

As a born and bred Kiwi who expressed a strong desire to return home there was little the QRU and Rugby Australia could do.

Stopping similarly well equipped Australian talent doing the same is of far more concern.

For every Parata there is a Reesjan Pasitoa and a Carter Gordon waiting in the wings.

The latter has already signed a development contract with the Reds and the former has just steered Nudgee College to back-to-back GPS 1st XV premierships before hitting Year 12.

He is a breathtaking talent at No. 10 and the exact player this talent retention model strives to secure.

“We want to develop these players for Super Rugby and beyond.

 “Keeping guys like (Gordon and Pasitoa) is now happening more and more and that’s really pleasing.

“This model concentrates on giving those kids exposure and opportunity in quality programs and allowing them to then develop through to the highest level.”