Leicester Tigers: Secret to academy success is dodging 'Bearded Bill'

By Adam WhittyBBC Radio Leicester Sport
Trophy lifting
Leicester Tigers' under-18s side retained their academy league title earlier this month with victory over Gloucester

While the sheer unrelenting physicality of top-level rugby has never been greater - or scarier - the recruitment process is far more complicated.

Understandable notions of simply selecting the next Herculean adolescent in line, the biggest, quickest and strongest, are way off the mark.

An academy boasting an all-conquering side who are unbeaten in two seasons is the by-product of a meticulous approach concentrating on attitude, commitment and developing the individual. Results are not the driving force.

BBC Sport visits the Leicester Tigers academy to see what's behind their knack for finding and nurturing the best talent around.

Avoiding 'Bearded Bill'

Leicester Tigers' world-renowned academy has long been known as one of the greatest rugby player factories in Europe.

More than 100 age-grade internationals have learned their trade in Leicester's development programme in its 21-year existence - and, in Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole and Ben Youngs, Tigers players are driving England's current Six Nations success.

The future looks bright too for their current batch of graduates - known as Tiger cubs - having picked up their second consecutive under-18s title following an unbeaten run lasting two seasons.

Through a combination of careful talent spotting, a wide-ranging rugby education and increasing first-team opportunities under a new coaching regime, Tigers continue to build on their world-class reputation for bringing through quality English talent.

"It was quite daunting when I first started working here," said academy manager Dave Wilks, who joined from Sale Sharks in 2015.

"There's a lot of expectation - quite rightly. That doesn't mean there's pressure, it just means there's lots of people wanting us to succeed."

Martin Johnson
England's World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson spent his entire club career with Leicester Tigers

England's World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson was developed from its strong youth structure, and names such as Tom Croft, Harry Ellis, Ollie Smith, as well as current England players Cole and Tuilagi, are part of the academy's impressive alumni.

Tigers pick their talent from a huge area, which includes Leicestershire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and, surprisingly, Norfolk.

There is a long line of East Anglians who have excelled in a Tigers shirt, notably the Youngs brothers, hooker Tom and England's first choice scrum-half Ben.

He typifies the talent-spotting approach implemented by Tigers. Although small in stature at 5ft 8ins tall, his attitude and mental strength made him stand out, leading him to become Tigers' youngest-ever league player in 2007.

Since then he has played more than 80 times for his country.

"It is very easy to wander around and just find the lad we might term 'Bearded Bill' - who, as a 13-year-old, is running over everyone and is finding the game very easy," said academy head coach Jamie Taylor.

Ben Youngs
Ben Youngs was brought from a Norfolk school to the Tigers academy, and is now England's first choice scrum-half

"But that's the sure route to getting players who aren't hitting the high point when they're in their early twenties."

Leicester look to bring players through their 'player pathway' from as young as 13, with a 16-18 programme and a development squad for those looking to break into the first team.

Taylor added: "The biggest thing I look for when looking at young players is what they are like mentally.

"How hard are they going to work? How committed are they? How good are they at practicing when no one else is looking?"

Making 'better people' not just better players

Geordan Murphy
Geordan Murphy's appointment as head coach has seen an increased drive to get academy players in the first team

Once young players are fully embedded in the academy programme from 16, they will attend their training facilities every Friday and Monday during term time, and full time during school holidays.

"It is very challenging," said Ollie Ashworth, a 17-year-old back-rower who lifted the academy finals trophy this week. "My teachers have really helped, from just making me catch up with work."

Ashworth, one of a new generation of Norfolk-born players, added: "At first, when I got into the academy, my dad was taking me up to Leicester most weekends, so he lost his social life. Nowadays we have a bus which takes us up to Leicester each week."

An intensive period of individualised rugby education follows, which looks at teaching academy pupils more than the basics of rugby tactics and fitness.

"We have a curriculum of strength and conditioning, right the way from 14, and it's the same with nutrition and with the mental side of it too," said Wilks.

Jamie Taylor
Jamie Taylor and the rest of the academy staff lead the search for new talent

"Ultimately, it's up to them to want to do that and live those professional values every day, from the age of 16-17, and hopefully that will continue through to the first team when it really matters."

Another academy forward Emeka Ilione, 16, says their programme helps players "become better people", not just better rugby players.

He added: "Mainly it's about just physical development and being able to look after myself. Knowing little things like sleep, and hydration, and so I can make myself feel as well as I can."

'It's not about winning'

Their approach is clearly paying dividends.

The Tigers' under-18s team has not lost a match in two seasons, beating Gloucester earlier this month in a dramatic game at Allianz Parkexternal-link to retain their under-18s League title.

However, the club have a more pragmatic approach to their on-field achievements.

"We're not sure how successful we have been," said Taylor.

"The purpose of what we are doing is not winning academy matches. It's long-term opportunity, whether that's with the club, or life in general."

Dave wilks
Academy manager Dave Wilks has a tough choice to make over who will get development contracts

Since Geordan Murphy's appointment as first-team head coach in December, there has been a greater drive to include players from the academy in the senior squad.

In a recent Premiership Cup defeat by Northampton Saints, 15 of the 23-strong matchday squad learned their trade at Tigers and four of those were still part of the development programme.

Wilks added: "I think there's just more clarity, because we know the direction Geordan wants to take the team.

"My job is to make sure that if we're going to give some young players a chance, that they're able enough, talented enough and at the right level to go and take those opportunities."

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