Junior results show system overhaul bearing fruit

by Emma Greenwood

A quiet revolution is taking place in the junior ranks of Australian rugby.

While the Wallabies stumbled into the World Cup quarters on the back of a year in which they fell to seventh place in the rankings, results at the junior level suggest there is new growth on the horizon.

It hasn't come about through luck either.

There were plenty of rumblings when Rugby Australia took over management of the national schools teams last year to bring a coordinated approach to its U18 development.

Fears the move would erode the prestige of the Australian Schoolboys team - a side that has produced players the likes of the Ella brothers, Michael Lynagh, Tim Horan and Kurtley Beale - have been assuaged as the Schools and U18s, under the Rugby Australia banner, completed a successful tour of the UK last year before beating the Kiwis in New Zealand earlier this year.

That victory came hot on the heels of the Junior Wallabies' win over the Baby Blacks in the U20 Oceania Championships on the Gold Coast in April, a forerunner to their push into the final at the Junior World Cup in Argentina in June.

Junior Wallabies coach Jason Gilmore has worked with both the U20s, taking them to the Junior World Cup final, and the Schools and U18s, where he acts as defence coach and said the work done on restructuring the junior pathway was starting to bear fruit.

"I think the work that particularly the work that (Rugby Australia national head of talent management) Adrian Thompson, supported by (RA's general manager, professional rugby services) Ben Whittaker has done to the structure at the pathway in the last 18 months, has been really positive for the boys coming through," Gilmore said.

"And we've built a skills curriculum this year that we'll embed through our junior academies and senior academies that we'll make available to our schools and senior and junior clubs which sits underneath a game model for U20 and below.

"That way, all the boys' core skills and position specific (knowledge) and rugby IQ, along with their physical development (is benchmarked).

"We make sure that on a national level, we're profiling the boys and our coaches are up to speed with how we want to coach them so at the end of the day, the boys are filing through into Super Rugby with the necessary attributes."

Thompson said a review by the national school strategy group found the Schoolboys team was not truly representative of talent at the U18 level given so many students outside of NSW currently finish school at 17.

"There's no way that they could represent Australia under the old system because the Australian Schools Rugby Union would only allow them to represent Australia should they actually still be at school," Thompson said.

"The national school strategy group last year ran a massive process over three or four months led by Paul McLean and came up with the thought that an AustralianU18 team should be truly representative and not limited to just kids at school.

"But the name itself (the team is now known as the Australian Schools and U18s) probably also reflects the fact that it's no longer a team run by the Australian Schools Rugby Union, or selected by the Australian Schools Rugby Union, it's run by Rugby Australia and it's another one of our high performance national teams in the same way that the U20s or Junior Wallabies are.

"So that was a reason we made the change."

Previously, national schoolboys players were named following a five-day carnival, a process Thompson said did not necessarily ensure the best footballers were selected, while there was no automatic flow on to the next age level.

Under the new system, Gilmore, the Junior Wallabies coach, is involved with the U18s, most of whom will head into the first U20 camp at the Australian Institute of Sport later this month.

"One of the outcomes has been trying to get better alignment through the Australian Schools and U18s program into the Junior Wallabies, so we're aware of the boys and also the boys are aware of how we want to operate, so the transition is made a lot easier," Gilmore said.

"I think we found that last year. I went across on the Aussie schoolboys tour last year to Scotland and did the boys' exit interviews and spoke to them about their footy and where they're sitting with Junior Wallabies and that certainly helped them coming into this year's program."