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O'Shea is taking on the challenge of addressing the long-term structure of English rugby.
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O’Shea is taking on the challenge of addressing the long-term structure of English rugby.


Is English rugby utilizing its available talent to the fullest? The question is straightforward and, to Conor O’Shea’s credit, he does not avoid it. “The answer is simply no,” states the director of performance for the Rugby Football Union, as he sits in the national team’s hotel in Bagshot on a Monday morning. As the Six Nations championship continues and a crucial Calcutta Cup match approaches, the outcome at Murrayfield is not the only concern on the minds of those at Twickenham.

What is the initial step? The RFU has officially announced that a six-week timeframe has been established to reach a feasible agreement on minimum standards with the clubs below the Premiership. This is in order to launch a revamped second tier in the fall of 2025. In addition to tackling complex matters such as promotion, relegation, funding, and player development pathways, there must also be a strong foundation of governance in place. Six weeks may seem short, as these processes have traditionally taken years.

On Sunday at Ealing Trailfinders, the ticking clock was emphasized even more. If the team in the lead of the Championship had not missed two excellent opportunities to score tries, hit the posts twice, or allowed two interceptions resulting in scores, they would have rightfully defeated Leicester from the Premiership in their semi-final match. While it should be noted that it was not a completely full-strength Tigers team, anyone observing the scrums would have assumed that Ealing was the dominant top-tier team.

However, despite it being one of the busiest days in Ealing’s history, the crowd was only 2,565 people. This has sparked a discussion about the capacity of England to sustain professional clubs. The question now is how should Ealing be viewed – as a welcoming and well-managed professional club with a successful women’s team and close ties to Brunel University, or as a privately funded fantasy with minimal support from the RFU?

In the end, it comes down to finding the most effective structure for the English national team, upcoming generations of young players, and the domestic leagues. England is not alone in facing issues with structure: Scotland recently got rid of the Super Series tournament intended to assist their two professional teams, while Wales is also working to streamline their development pathways. As O’Shea correctly points out, the fundamental principle of developing elite players is crucial: they need to be playing.

Therefore, the return of England’s A team this weekend, after an absence of almost eight years, has been a welcomed revival. However, this absence has made it more challenging for Eddie Jones to identify players who can excel outside of their comfort zones. Nonetheless, Conor O’Shea shares the same optimism as Mark Mapletoft, England’s Under-20s coach, who stated last month that the future of the red rose looks promising. According to O’Shea, the current young players in the system are not just ordinary, they are exceptional. With proper management from the ages of 17 to 21 or 22, England has the potential to form a team for the ages. Every country has talented players, but with the right structures in place, O’Shea is excited about England’s abundance of talent.

England’s Under-20s players celebrate after Archie McParland (second right) scored their second try of the game during their Under-20’s Six Nations 28-7 win over Wales on 09 February 2024.

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The goal is to create a league that exists below the Premiership and serves as a training ground for up-and-coming players while also being an exciting and competitive competition. Nottingham’s chairman, Alistair Bow, believes that the RFU has not taken talks with the Championship sides seriously, but O’Shea disagrees. He is frustrated by the perception that the RFU does not care about the Championship and points out that they are invested in making it successful and impactful. The value of the Championship is recognized, but it is not the only important factor.

The RFU maintains its belief in the idea of promotion and relegation. They want to emphasize that there is a pathway for teams to move up into the Premiership through growth. They also want to ensure that teams from the national leagues have a fair chance at this opportunity. The newly named “tier two” will likely include two types of clubs: those who are content with their current position due to the high costs of being in the Premiership, and those like Ealing and Coventry who may take some time but are determined to achieve this goal. The goal is for everyone involved to be on board with this plan.

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Moreover, there is something that we can all truly celebrate. The strict rule of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) to only select players from England – “In order for our league to thrive and be successful, we need the top players competing in England; otherwise, people will lose interest” – may have differing opinions, but everyone agrees on the importance of English rugby finally coming together as a whole. O’Shea adds, “The biggest challenge facing English rugby is the large number of players. We must move away from constantly changing our team selections and focus on consistency and unity. We need to determine who our top players are and stick with them.”

Despite facing additional obstacles such as the Covid pandemic and struggling clubs, O’Shea acknowledges that the upcoming six weeks are crucial. He emphasizes that not achieving their goals by the end of March will not deter them from continuing to work towards them. However, he stresses the importance of not allowing a small group of individuals to derail their progress. The ultimate goal is to complete the task at hand, and while perfection may not be attainable, O’Shea remains confident that their system can be significantly improved.

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Source: theguardian.com