By Neale Harvey
New Northampton supremo Chris Boyd reckons the ongoing threat of relegation from the Premiership hampers the progress of English academy players by making coaches risk-averse.
Saints’ rugby director favours ring-fencing and believes consideration must also be given to merging the Premiership Rugby Cup and A-League in order to aid player development.
Boyd, who arrived this summer from Super Rugby outfit Hurricanes, where he influenced the careers of star All Blacks Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara, is committed to blooding academy talents at Franklin’s Gardens like James Grayson, Alex Mitchell and Ehren Painter.
However, despite being in-situ barely a month, the experienced Kiwi already finds himself questioning whether English rugby’s current structure is fit for purpose.
Boyd told The Rugby Paper: “There’s a good smattering of young fellas here like James, Alex, Ehren, Fraser Dingwall, Toby Trinder, Lewis Ludlam and Ollie Sleightholme, but only time will tell how many of these kids actually come through.
“If there was no relegation clubs could start blooding their kids earlier, but while there’s still relegation, how inclined are you to use the back end of a season as a development process when you’re under huge pressure to win games?
“It does give a mental hardness from playing under pressure, but are you trying to win or are you just trying to avoid losing? There is a mental shift in that.”
As well as development benefits that might accrue from ring-fencing, Boyd also makes a case for linking the A-League – now rebranded as the Premiership Rugby Shield – with the Premiership Rugby Cup (PRC), which has replaced the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
He explained: “I haven’t got enough experience yet to have a really concrete view, but I just wonder if there’s any way of connecting the PRC with the Monday night games and making that one competition to really have a focus on being able to grow and develop your own potential?
“One of the big problems here – and we have the same in Super Rugby – as you go deep into the season and start getting into critical situations, is that half your squad are in the 23 and getting games while the other half aren’t playing. That’s a really tough place to manage so to have those competitions connected is really important.
“I know from talking to the other directors of rugby that the A-League has a good function at the start of the season, but after that, when the attrition kicks in, it becomes more difficult so the timing needs to be looked at as well as connecting with the PRC.”
Despite the challenges posed by the English system, Boyd is determined to ensure rare talents like Grayson and Mitchell are given chances to impress.
He explained: “They’re going to be really good footballers and James and I have already had chats around what the next two or three years will look like for him; where he’s going to get his growth development and how I can give him games.
“Alex is the same and they both currently sit behind guys in Dan Biggar and Cobus Reinach who are experienced internationals, but I’ve had some experience at the Hurricanes with Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara, who dominated game time there.
“Keeping guys happy is key but James and Alex know that if they’re patient, they could play 200-plus games for Saints when it’s their time.”
Boyd added: “I’ve got to give both of them enough game time so that they feel connected and belong and that they’re developing and improving.
“Alex is on the bench so he’s going to get regular game time, while James has got some big jobs ahead for us when Dan’s off on the November Tests with Wales.
“James is also going to run our A-team programme and we need him to be at the top of his game, so he’s got the chance to make really good strides. He’s such a mature young fella who has a great rugby brain and is already coaching the team.”