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Probyn column: Strong words from Dean Ryan on RFU

Dean Ryan

Rugby-wise I’m a lucky man. I’ve played a game that started with the school team, then progressed through school boy county rugby, junior (grassroots) club rugby, county club rugby, senior club rugby (the equivalent of Premiership now), senior county rugby, divisional rugby, regional rugby and ended with international rugby, and a short period of professional rugby.

Never on that journey did I consider the people behind the scenes in any way determined my playing future.

There was no professional pathway for me to follow, no player development courses for me to attend, just a number of clubs that were prepared to allow me to play for them and gain personal experience from playing the game with a bunch of other players who would help out if and when I needed it.

The one thing that was there right from my first game was a structure that I realise was put in place by the RFU, with teams at different levels for me to aim for if I wanted to progress up the ladder to the top.

Although I didn’t go to the ‘right school’ to make England at U15s it didn’t matter because I could rejoin the ladder at a later date when I made a choice to continue the journey. Sadly that pathway is no more.

Dean Ryan’s comments in last weekend’s Sunday Times, that the RFU do a 1,000 things but none of them well, is one hell of a statement – particularly as so much of what the RFU do these days is controlled by the professional game.

As head of international player development, his role was to liaise with the Premiership club-run academies to bring the ‘best’ young players into the elite game at U18s as they were finishing their time at the academies.

I’ve known Dean as a player since he arrived at Wasps while still in the army and know he has strong views and ideas, but I am surprised by his comments.

The department he headed was always under pressure of being shut down because it was, according to the Premiership, duplicating what they were doing in terms of player and coach development, so they argued the money should go to them.

Dean must have known this from his time coaching in the Premiership and yet he accuses the RFU, when in truth it is the Premiership which has made life in the game virtually impossible for the RFU to control.

He states the way the revenue comes into the game is broken, but how else can the RFU money be raised?

The clubs do not generate enough money to fund themselves and are reliant on the monies they can extort for the use of their players. Meanwhile the players want more money than the game can afford and with more time off.

Sport is a commodity and the international game the only money spinner in town as far as rugby is concerned, but the RFU have to be realistic in terms of ticket price and TV rights, as rugby is far smaller than most people realise.

The RFU have tried to keep some of their development pathways but have always had to struggle against the Premiership’s insistence that there can be no level of rugby between club and country – with the clubs’ control of the players as the guarantee that the union will comply.

For coaches who want to move up the ladder, the fact there are no representative levels between the Premiership and the national side, except the junior international teams, means there are no teams for aspiring young coaches to coach. The only way a coach can now climb the ladder is by having success in a grassroots club, with the hope of being spotted by a Premiership club and taken into their coaching set-up.

Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Speaking of coaches, Eddie Jones seems to have finally admitted that he is not the man to lead England to World Cup glory, and has instead taken a step I believe is an abdication of responsibility for the team’s results by seeking to employ a sports psychologist.

I have to admit I am not a fan of sports psychologists particularly when it comes to ‘team mental problems’ and a supposed mental block the team still have since 2015. Although psychologists can be of use for individuals within a team who may feel they are unable to express themselves or need to focus more on parts of their game, they tend to be a waste of time when it comes to the team as a whole.

It is also not a new route for Jones who has already employed psychologists for the team, so the question is will bringing in another one improve or confuse the message he is trying to deliver?

In a team every individual has different buttons that need to be pushed to make them focus on the job in hand and a psychologist would not have enough time to find those buttons for every player and so would have to generalize, which again, wouldn’t work for all the team.

The players the psychologist is going to be working with are experienced Premiership and international players, not some young kids who have never played in front of a crowd.

We were told by the first psychologist to be employed by the RFU in 1991 that he was wasting his time as we were all experienced internationals and would not have made it to the top had we not have had the right mental attitude.

With the World Cup so close, if Jones has failed to enthuse the players with his vision by now, a psychologist is the last thing the team needs.

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