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Ulster Rugby Academy: Season Review

Kieran Campbell reflects on the season.

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It has been another busy year on and off the field for the Abbey Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy, and it has been a largely positive one, as Kieran Campbell, Academy Manager reflects:

“It’s been another successful season, particularly in terms of the number of Academy players who have transitioned into the senior team,” said Campbell.

“They’ve done really well in that environment and I think that has been reflected not only in their performances, but in how they’ve contributed to good victories both in the PRO14 and the Champions Cup.

“I think that has to be attributed to improved transition of players led by [Head Coach] Dan McFarland into the senior setup. The guys are learning incredibly quickly in that environment thanks to Dan and the other senior coaches and also making significant improvements to their game.”

The successful transition of players from the Academy squad into the Ulster senior team has certainly been one of the highlights of the season, with Academy players making an outstanding 107 appearances in Guinness PRO14 and Heineken Champions Cup competition. As Campbell explains, this was not by chance.

“We’ve really developed that synergy with the seniors and we’ve put in place a formal system for transitioning Academy players up into the senior squad. All the activity of Academy players is intensely scrutinised now and we’re sharing that information with the senior coaching team, so we can use that information to identify when the player is ready to make that transition.

“Fourteen Academy players trained regularly with the seniors this year and Dan and [Scrum Coach] Aaron Dundon also ran a scrum clinic every week with the Academy and sub-Academy players alongside the senior front row.

“The Academy players also trained with the senior players not involved in match-day squads each Friday, so that has really helped accelerate their development and given the senior coaches and staff the opportunity to get to know them better. In addition to that, we’ve developed what we’ve called ‘the critical drop groups’ so the senior coaches now know exactly what the Academy players need to work on at every session to ensure they are constantly developing and this is done after sessions three times a week.”

The Ulster A team, sponsored by CD Group, once again proved to be a useful outlet for the young Academy players to test themselves at a more challenging level.

“We made a strategic decision between the Academy and senior staff that it would be a young Ulster A team this year and we’ve built our depth again through that. On average we had 16 Academy or sub-Academy players per Ulster A squad and have had reasonable success, winning five of the seven Celtic Cup games.

“Going across to the Cara Cup in America was a fantastic experience for a lot of those players to travel as a group and have a really intense week with two tough fixtures, so that was another great learning opportunity for those guys.”

Further down the player pathway, Ulster have enjoyed significant growth at national age-grade level in recent years, and have been well represented again this year.

“At age-grade level we’ve had good success in terms of players coming through at national level. We’re expecting to have around 24/25 national jerseys again this year across Ireland U18, U19 and U20 level, which is a good number and shows there’s a high quality players coming through our pathway.

“We’ve also had players involved in the Irish U20s Six Nations Grand Slam success and five going to the U20 World Championships so I think in general it’s been another move in the right direction this year and it’s something positive that we can build on going forward.”

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Off the field, a significant review of the Academy also took place this year, with the view of creating a sustainable, high-performing environment that will be a key asset to Ulster and Irish rugby, as Campbell explains:

“Obviously we’ve got a lot of key stakeholders – the Academy is very much a shared development space because not only do you have the Academy and senior players, but you’ve also got clubs and schools involved in the progress of each player.

“Therefore, it was important for the review that we involved Simon Best from a club perspective, Stephen Black from the schools and we also brought in two external people in Hugh McCaughey and Jo Hopkins, who is a consultant with the British Olympic programme, because we wanted to get an external high performance view on how we were developing, in terms of our processes within the Academy.

“We also spent some time visiting other high performances models to compare with our own and see if there was anything that we could improve in. We took those key people with us and we visited Exeter Chiefs, Saracens and Arsenal, and, with Jo there, we did a comparison with the British Olympic model as well.

“What did we learn from it? We learned that our own processes are actually pretty good but we also came back with some key areas for development and some of that has been in the transition processes that we’ve looked at between ourselves and the seniors.

“There’s also things that we’ve looked to improve in terms of how we shared information with our key stakeholders. We implemented a new communication platform to ensure there’s good liaison with our key stakeholders on the development of players but also to get their feedback on NTS (National Training Squad) and Academy players.

“We also looked at developing our coaching network and our Talent Coach programme, and that is something that we have put a real emphasis on this year – to develop a succession plan of quality coaches. We’re realistic in acknowledging that the power of what we deliver on the playing field can only be increased in line with the quality of coaches that we have working with the players at all the key levels.

“In terms of culture and environment, we’ve adopted the ‘fight for every inch’ and ‘squeeze every drop’ ethos from Dan [McFarland] – it was something we noticed particularly at Exeter and Saracens where they have such a strong, consistent culture throughout their teams so it is something that we will be pushing right down into our age grade squads from the very top. I think that is bearing fruit as well because it is creating an environment where guys are really striving to enhance their performance and that is obviously reflected in the number of national age grade jerseys and Ulster senior caps we’re getting and also results like the U19s beating the Australia national side.”

Despite another successful season in the books, Campbell is optimistic that there is still room for improvement next year.

“I think we have progressed well but there is still an opportunity to grow again next year. We had 10 Academy players capped for the seniors this year with more than 100 caps, which is great, and is more than any other PRO14 team. Of that, five of those guys have been regularly featuring in the senior team every week, so that’s been great progress but we’ve got a long way to go.

“I know Dan [McFarland] will be wanting to aim higher than just PRO14 semi-finals. We’ll want to be delivering more national jerseys than we are and being successful with the Ulster A team, and in terms of our actual pathway, we need to keep building on our culture, which is really developing well.

“We want to develop a mentoring programme with our senior players and our Academy players to keep developing players to be leaders in the future. We’ve got to keep building on the relationships we have with the senior coaches and the relationships they have with our players to accelerate their development.

“I think with all that work we’re growing the quality mass of players who can support the 1st XV. We’re very neat in our succession planning and we’re very clear in the areas that we need to create players for the senior team to help make them successful. Those are all very important areas of development and we will hopefully see a greater growth in how our programme delivers over the next few years.”

The post Abbey Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy Season Review appeared first on Ulster Rugby.

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Premiership

Sharks sign respected Full-back on 1 year deal

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Former Gloucester full-back Jason Woodward joins Sale Sharks ahead of 2022/23 Premiership season 

Sale Sharks have signed versatile full-back Jason Woodward on a one-year deal ahead of the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season. 

The former Bristol Bears and Gloucester man, who can also play on the wing and in the centre, put pen to paper today and will join Alex Sanderson’s squad ahead of their opening pre-season clash against Caldy RFC on August 19. 

Jason signed for Bristol from Super Rugby side the Hurricanes in 2016, before joining Gloucester the following year after Bristol’s relegation from the Premiership. He went on to make made 67 appearances and score 90 points for the Cherry and Whites. 

The 32-year-old represented New Zealand at U20 level but qualifies for England through his grandmother and was called into a training camp by Eddie Jones in 2017. 

Sharks Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson said: “After speaking with Jason it was clear he was still motivated to perform at the highest level, and he was keen for a move North to join the Sharks. 

“Jason is a proven Premiership performer who will add a great deal of quality and experience to what is a young squad here.  

“He has the ability to play in a number of positions and that’s a massive bonus for us with such a busy schedule ahead. 

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International

RFU Council votes in favour of change to gender participation policy

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Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images
Press release issued by Rugby Football Union
 
  • The RFU Council has approved a new gender participation policy following extensive stakeholder consultation and thorough review of all available scientific evidence
  • New policy takes a precautionary approach by prioritising safety of players
  • RFU promoting opportunities for everyone to participate in rugby offering a range of formats and ways to get involved along with a confidential helpline 
  • RFU committed to working with World Rugby and UK Sports Councils to ensure further research is conducted and to reviewing the policy on a regular basis

Following an extensive RFU consultation, the RFU Council has voted in favour of updating its gender participation policy for rugby in England from the start of the 2022/23 season with 33 in favour, 26 against and 2 abstaining.

The RFU began a detailed review of its policy in Autumn 2020, this included a game wide survey receiving over 11,000 responses, extensive consultation with and listening to a wide range of independent experts as well as considering all available scientific evidence along with liaising with other sporting bodies.

The review and consultation concluded that detailed peer reviewed research provides evidence that there are physical differences between those people whose sex originally recorded as male and those as female at birth, and advantages in strength, stamina and physique brought about by testosterone and male puberty are significant and retained even after testosterone suppression. 
This science provides the basis of the new gender participation policy that concludes the inclusion of trans people originally recorded male at birth in female contact rugby cannot be balanced against considerations of safety and fairness.

The RFU Council has determined that until such time as new further peer-reviewed science is available, a precautionary approach is appropriate to ensure fair competition and safety of all competitors. Therefore, the RFU Council approved a policy change to only permit players in the female category if the sex originally recorded at birth is female. 

The RFU recognises this was a complex and difficult decision and the policy change was not taken lightly or without thorough and full research and consultation.  Speaking about the decision, RFU President, His Honour Jeff Blackett said: “I would like to thank everyone for the passion, time and effort that has been put in to consulting with us and informing this policy review.  Inclusion is at the heart of rugby values and we will continue to work with everyone to keep listening, learning and finding ways to demonstrate there is a place for everyone in our game.  We know that many will be disappointed by this decision however, it has been based on all the scientific evidence available.  Our game can be strengthened by everyone who is involved; be it in coaching, refereeing, administration or supporting and playing non-contact forms of the game.”

The RFU also considered the merits of a case-by-case assessment process, but in light of the research findings and work of World Rugby and the UK Sports Councils, and given the difficulties in identifying a credible test to assess physiological variables, this is no longer a viable option at this time and does not necessarily ensure inclusion.   World Rugby has a dedicated funding stream for research in this area and the RFU will continue to work with World Rugby and other stakeholders in promoting research to continue.

In the male category, players whose sex recorded at birth is female may play if they provide their written consent and a risk assessment is carried out.

The RFU is committed to supporting and encouraging opportunities for everyone to participate in rugby including non-contact formats of the game and through coaching, refereeing or volunteering roles.  If anyone would like to find out more about how rugby can be inclusive to them and would like to get involved they can contact the RFU via [email protected] . For anyone who wants advice on mental-wellbeing please see this link. 
  
The RFU has contacted the registered trans women players, who the revised policy has a direct impact on, to offer its support in continuing to encourage them to participate in the sport. The RFU will continue to listen and review its policy on a regular basis and welcomes all new research on this subject to inform these reviews.

For further information on the review please click here:
RFU Gender Participation Policy – frequently asked questions
RFU Gender Participation video


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Premiership

Joe Simpson joins the Sharks Family!

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Sale Sharks have signed former England scrum-half Joe Simpson on a short-term contract ahead of the 2022/23 Gallagher Premiership season.

The former Wasps and Gloucester man, who has one England cap and was part of his country’s squad for the 2011 World Cup, has put pen to paper on a six-month deal.

Joe made almost 250 appearances for Wasps after graduating from their academy in 2008, before joining Gloucester in 2019.

He had loan spells at both Saracens and Bath Rugby last season, but after being released from his contract at Kingsholm, he has joined up with Alex Sanderson’s squad for pre-season ahead of a busy Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup campaign.

And the Sharks Director of Rugby says that with Raffi Quirke and Will Cliff currently sidelined with injuries, the 34-year-old will be a massive addition to the club on and off the field

Alex said: “We felt that we were short of a bit of experience in the scrum-half position and Joe brings that in abundance. He’s a proven performer who’s played at the very highest level for the past decade and more and we’re sure he will be a brilliant addition to what is a very young squad.

“Everyone who has worked with Joe speaks really highly of him in terms of his leadership off the field so we’re really excited to see what he can do here. Joe’s experience will be invaluable for our young players like Raffi, Gus Warr and Nye Thomas.”

Joe Simpson has been one of the Premiership’s most consistent performers over the past decade.

At international level, he represented England at U19 and U20 level, taking part in the inaugural Junior World Championship in Wales in 2008, as well as playing for the Sevens and Saxons teams.

Joe made his full debut for England during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand when he replaced Ben Youngs during a pool stage clash with Georgia.

Images & Content from Sale Sharks Rugby


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