Whatever their level, whether it’s with rugby’s elite or among the game’s grassroots, creating an environment where players can thrive is key to building a group both passionate about what they do and willing to go the extra mile for their team-mates.
The best leaders always say that championing the individual is key to getting the most out of a team – an ethos adopted by many of the game’s greatest, from Clive Woodward’s England in 2003 to Richie McCaw’s back-to-back Rugby World Cup winners.
While the focus is often on the game’s international players, the blueprint of all test rugby players is drawn up many years before they reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Take Hartpury College in England. According to a study by NextGenXV, the university setup, which is also home to Hartpury’s English Championship second-division outfit, has one of the world’s best track records for developing Under-20 international rugby players, several of whom have reached the top of the game.
“There’s a variety of reasons why we’ve been so successful,” explains John Barnes, Hartpury’s director of rugby. “As our success on the pitch and the development of individuals continues, recruitment only gets easier once you are successful.
“One thing we really try to do, as coaches and academic staff, is to create an environment where the players can learn. Young players are certainly going to make a lot of mistakes as they go through the game, so it’s important to create an environment where they feel comfortable to make mistakes and to focus on getting better.
“We talk a lot about how we make the individual better because, ultimately, that will make the team better. Rugby’s a simple game and, if you’ve got good players, and good people, you’re likely to do well as a team.”
Among its alumni, Hartpury has seen some of the game’s brightest talent learn their craft at the Gloucestershire campus. In the men’s game, they include England’s Jonny May as well as the Gloucester wing’s team-mate Louis Rees-Zammit. The Welshman scored four times during his debut Six Nations campaign earlier this year and will feature alongside fellow Hartpury alumnus Jonny Hill on this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
However, Barnes also says the college isn’t geared towards developing the game’s top percent exclusively, and that their rugby union programme is built on an ethos designed to not only unearth future rugby stars, but to give alumni a career beyond the game, and ultimately to find good people to contribute to the sport.
“That’s something we try to emphasise,” Barnes continues, “that not everyone who comes to Hartpury is a superstar. We work with guys playing at their local school and for their county and, in some cases, turn them into potential international players. That’s what we’re most proud of.
“There are players like Billy Burns (Ireland), Stephen Varney (Italy), and Jonny Hill (England), with no real pedigree behind them in terms of playing rugby, who suddenly begin to thrive. It’s similar with Ross Moriarty (Wales), who came in as a full-back from the Ospreys, and a few years later became a British and Irish Lion, playing back-row. Every individual is different.
“How they can learn and how they get better is something really important. The best coaches in the world understand that and is something that we work hard on at Hartpury. Unlike a rugby academy that’s very rugby driven, we’ve got the education background to give players that balance.
“You create a situation where perhaps Rees-Zammit is playing for Gloucester on the Saturday and comes into an exam the next day with other 18-year-olds. It keeps players grounded and adapts their development to their own specific attributes. As long as you can adapt as a coach, with the support of the academics, it makes it that much easier to create that environment.”
While still growing in popularity, Barnes also believes the women’s game can flourish with the same mindset. To name only two, England’s Alex Matthews and Kelly Smith are products of Hartpury’s women’s rugby development programme, which has also been home to the domestic Premier 15s club side Gloucester-Hartpury since its inception in 2014.
“I think the improvement in women’s rugby on the pitch has been vast over the past few years,” Barnes says. “Our women’s programme has developed, and we now have a Premiership team with a university and college programme attached to that. Certainly, we’ve invested at Hartpury in full-time coaches and is helping move the women’s game forward.
“Having watched some of the Six Nations over the past few weeks, the on-pitch play has seen a vast improvement and is certainly creating more coverage around the women’s game, and rightly so. I think we will see more investment in the years to come and, when we get crowds back, people will go and watch it because the standard is getting better and better, including the coaching within it.
“At Hartpury, we want to promote the women’s game to get it up alongside the men’s game. I can only see it getting stronger.”