Gloucester Rugby’s U18s side made it six wins from six this season in the U18 Premiership Rugby competition with a 36-28 win at Northampton last Saturday.
Head of Academy, Neil McCarthy, reflected on their progress.
The victory means that Gloucester have finished top of the Northern conference and will now square off against London Irish at Allianz Park on February 15th to determine the best team in the country.
However, whilst winning is important according to McCarthy, who returned to Gloucester to take on his new role less than a year ago, it’s more about the bigger picture.
“I think in terms of performance, it’s been really positive. We’re not necessarily focused on winning the Academy League so results aren't our priority. Our priority is to develop players who are capable of progressing into the first team.
“But it’s really pleasing that our performances across the board have been really good and, as a consequence, we’ve had some good results.
“It’s a step up from the schools programmes that they’ve been involved in because they’re playing against the other best players in the country. So, it’s right and proper also that we need to prep them for the rigours of senior rugby as best we can.
“But, equally, there’s a balance there in terms of providing an environment where the players can express their ability because they’re all vying for professional contracts.
“So that means not over-organising them so that their individual expression isn’t stifled.”
Remarkably, the feeling around the camp is that the U18s haven’t perhaps yet fielded their best possible side due to injuries and availability. But, being able to provide playing opportunities to as many players as possible, is a
“One of the most pleasing elements is that we haven’t put the same team out twice. Clearly we have some stand-out players in that group, we also have some lads in the lower sixth who are equally as good and have had as much opportunity.
“It’s not just about trying to win the league, it’s about trying to create a performance. Equally, we want to develop a programme based on sustainable excellence and that means players at the bottom end of the programme having an opportunity as well. And, when they have an opportunity, doing well.”
And several members of the squad have certainly made the most of their chances, and their performances have led to selection in the Gloucester XV that took on the Barbarians back in November and also for Gloucester United in the A League.
“The A League is part of the pathway. It’s a stepping stone to playing in the first team and, if the lads are playing well at U18 level, it’s right and proper that we give them an opportunity in the A League.
“And we’ve managed to do that and also maintain a winning habit in the A League as well. On both fronts, it’s really positive because we want to develop a winning culture but also provide playing opportunities.”
McCarthy was speaking to the club website at the club’s training base at Hartpury College and it was a perfect moment to pay tribute to the relationship between the two organisations.
“Hartpury is a big part of the Academy programme as are our other Education partners. But we do have a special relationship with Hartpury if you like. It’s been developed over a long time and we want to maintain that.
“There are players who are at school at Hartpury who play in their rugby programme, playing in their U18s. Some of those have been recruited by Hartpury, some of them we’ve put into Hartpury. So, it’s a real collaborative effort in terms of them doing well and us doing well.”
Looking forward, the focus is now on the game against London Irish and it will be a valuable experience, one that will be taken seriously.
“We’re approaching this game as if it was a final. As such, our preparations will be quite intense. We don’t want to heap pressure on the boys because, being able to perform in big games under pressure, ultimately decides who is good and who is great and who is going to progress into the first team.
“We’re not going to shy away from the fact that we’re in a final. The expectation will increase on us and on the players and we want to go there and win it ultimately.”