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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Counties, Regions and the calendar

Okay,the first little discussion on the National Cup seems to have run its course for the moment (or is beginning to drift off point a bit?) so let’s move on - for now – to another, not unrelated, area that causes even more widespread angst.The calendar.

There are two things that I think everyone agrees on with the Calendar. First – it comes out way too late. The first draft for 2007/8 only reached me on 3rdApril – and only after some pressure from Amanda - while the “final”version rarely seems to see the light of day before mid-August, or even September. For all the possible explanations this does make planning things ahead and arranging fixtures a bit of a lottery.

Second - its way too crowded to the detriment of clubs. There are some 36 Sundays on the current draft (not including Christmas and Easter).Of these six are county weekends, eight are regional – that is 14 weekends in all, or near 40% of the season when club fixtures are not possible. If you also factor in the fact that we are not supposed to play fixtures in September it restricts the “official” club playing year to only 18 Sundays.

Which would not be so bad really if they were well spread out – a game every fortnight would be fine, allowing non-representative players to train in between. But things are not evenly spaced. 20th January to 9th March 2008 is eight weekends – and five of these are regional weekends, including (between regional trials and the first regional game) three weekends in four.

This state of affairs does not assist the development of club rugby very much.

So why are so many weekends devoted to the development of – by definition – a minority of players? And can anything be done to improve things?

The heart of the problem is history (remarkably recent history, in fact). Regional teams seem to have initially been developed when the junior game had a mere smattering of players (ie. 5-6 years ago) with the principle aim being to bring girls together so that they could play full sized matches. Thus the “regional programme” was developed as –and interestingly officially still is – a “development” initiative and NOT an elite representative programme.

Come forward to 2007 and things have changed a bit. You now have to go through as selection process not only to get into the regional squads, but just to get to regional trials. That “give girls full games” target has now slipped down to a level to the counties – a curiously unregulated level (especially compared with the micro-managed regional level) that has emerged, rather than having been planned, over the past couple of seasons. As a result we now have two representative levels that dovetail into each other.

What this means is that every September (most) counties spend a weekend selecting a county squad. Then over the next two months they spend several weekends working with these girls to form county teams. They then play a couple of games... before the whole structure is thrown away.

Because its now January. And every region now spends a weekend selecting a regional squad. Then over the next two months they spend several weekends working with these girls to form regional teams. They then play a couple of games... before the whole structure is thrown away because the season is over.

The regional programme also has to squeeze itself around a minefield of other representative programmes including England U19s, England Colleges, etc. etc – as well as facing the unpredictability of the worst period of the season for bad weather.

Now, does anyone else feel that this endless cycle of selection, team building, play a game, start again is just a shade wasteful? Even if it didn’t louse up rugby for the (majority!) of girls who do not get into county or regional sides (because with insufficient team-mates or opposition players club games are impossible) the fact is that it is a remarkably inefficient way of going about things.

Now I know the theory here. It allows the elite players to be identified by taking girls through a finer and finer mesh, with regional rugby being a higher standard than county, which is itself above club.

Except (and I am getting ready to duck at this point) it doesn’t work. The smash-it-down-start-again does NOT result in regional teams that are stronger than county teams (or at least not significantly). Now this is not just a conclusion I reach as a result of my inexpert viewing of games, but based on one fairly good piece of evidence. Its called Yorkshire.

Yorkshire are – uniquely – both a county and a region. Same players, same team. If there were a significant difference in standards between the two levels then either Yorkshire would be unstoppable at county rugby OR they would be the weakest region in the country. But they aren’t. They are one of the leading county sides, but not the best, and they are also one of the leading regions.

How do they manage this? I suspect because they do not have to break up their team at Christmas and start again – they can carry on with the same squad, same coaches, same management team, developing throughout the season thus probably getting more out of the individual players over time than most other regions can manage.

So what is the lesson from all this? Simple – two “development” levels of rugby dovetailed into each other is wasteful, inefficient and ineffective. Get rid of one – and logically that means, for most parts of the country - getting rid of regions.

Look at the benefits.

  • A single representative development layer
  • Only one selection weekend.
  • Consistent, long-term squad and player development across the season
  • More local, less travelling, a better understood “area”
  • Matches existing CB structure
  • Training and matches spread easily and evenly across an entire season, so fewer sessions needed and plenty of space to organise sessions around England U19s and other, higher, call-ups.
  • No need to worry about weather cancellations as – again – you have the entire season to play with, not just 2-3 months.
  • And no need to shut down club rugby in the springtime.

Such a rationalisation would also give benefits for elite players as it would give space for a truly elite level. Using the adult model top players could play at a divisional level, 2-4 “superteam” squads training or playing on county days with professional national coaches in attendance.

So what objections might there be?

  • You're taking away my best players!" says the county coach,

    Sorry, Mr Coach, a) they aren't "yours" and b) county is a development level - not an elite. The aim is to develop new players and the game as a whole by giving girls the opportunity to play full-sized games. But truly Elite players need to be stretched, and they won't be in counties - they aren't even at regional level at the moment.

  • “Some counties aren’t big enough to go it alone like this”

    Then combine such counties in twos or threes until such time as they ARE strong enough

  • “What about the Rugby School Tournament?”

    RFUW are already proposing to scrap this for U18s, so its clearly not seen as essential by the centre. And the boys tournaments at Rugby are already county events.

Nonsense? Let’s have some comments…


  1. Anonymous8:00 AM

    I agree with what has been said, but looking at some of the counties where i am, there just arent enough teams to really have a 'county' squad. Here in central england, there are maybe 2 teams per county? so naturally the stronger team has the majority of the players in the squad and the weaker side has maybe one or two players.
    However with the regional program, the ability to combine the players to form an elite squad is more beneficial for the more talented players to play together and against better opposition.
    I do agree about the timetable because it seems that after the end of november/early december, county is ditched and sights are set on regions, however i believe that county is key for those girls who are maybe not quite ready for regional rugby, but need pushing.
    If the RFUW could organise some sort of league or tournament for the counties (ala rugby for the regions) then I can see the benefit, but where we are, we are just playing the same opposition we do with the club, give or take a few players.

  2. I can see that soe counties would not be big enough - in which case (as I said) you combine counties, or even retain a region as your basic "bulding block" until such time as the counties are big enough to stand alone.

    But the main thing is that you do not have BOTH. There is no sense in having both county AND region.


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