Is the future bright in green, black and white?
Lymm Rugby Club Mini & Junior and Colts Academy – a review PART ONE.
In the first interview of a two-part series, Andy Leach, the out-going Chairman of Lymm Rugby Club’s Mini & Junior and Colts Academy, honestly and openly reviews his tenure highlighting how and why the last ten years have been such a huge success for young players, the club, and northern rugby as a whole.
Q: Andy Leach, you have been Chairman of the Mini & Junior Section and Colts Academy at Lymm Rugby Club for the last ten years. What was the initial concept behind the launch and development of the Lymm Colts Academy back then?
Historically, all our age groups had assembled coaching teams which were exclusively made up of parents, most of whom had been players in the past, who earned their various coaching awards through RFU organised courses.
Whilst this had served us extremely well, we recognised that as players reached around u16 level, the players actually knew more than vast majority of parent coaches which meant that learning plateaued, training sessions became “boring” and numbers attending training dwindled, often leading to a downward spiral as the lack of numbers restricted what could be achieved in training.
A further issue we identified was that there was a clear “disconnect” between players as they moved out of age grade rugby and the Senior Club – there was little engagement and exposure which heightened the risk that players might not be interested in playing open age rugby once they had progressed beyond age grade rugby.
Consequently, we decided to set up the “Lymm Academy” which would combine our Junior and Senior Colts. They would train together, hence giving sufficient numbers to make training and coaching really valuable and interesting, and be coached by a small group of our senior players, with the parent coaches taking much more of a team management role.
The involvement of Senior players was a key ingredient as it (i) ensured that the same rugby philosophy and style of play would be coached in the Colts Academy as the First XV; (ii) built strong personal relationships between Senior players and our Colts; and (iii) allowed Senior players the opportunity to identify the players in the Colts Academy who were ready for the step up to Senior rugby.
Q: What progress have you noticed in Colts rugby in that time?
To be honest, the progress has been staggering and well beyond our original expectations. I guess there were three key objectives in setting up the Colts Academy (i) to ensure a steady progression of players making the jump from Age grade to open age rugby, hopefully with Lymm but if it was another club, that was fine too; (ii) to allow players to fulfil their potential with as many as possible earning representative recognition and, if they so chose, to enter the professional rugby ranks; and (iii) to enjoy success with their own age group – whether that be through league or cup successes.
I’ll talk about the first of these later as this is undoubtedly, the one aspect that has given me the greatest satisfaction as I suspect that there is unlikely to be many, if any, other clubs playing at the level that Lymm First XV does who can routinely claim that every Saturday 75-80% of its First and Second team squad members have come through the ranks of its mini and junior section and Colts Academy.
We’ve had some hugely talented players who have come through our ranks and it is great to see the likes of Ross Harrison, who is still only 25, now a senior player at Sale Sharks. We are equally proud that the Mitchell brothers, James and Alex, are both enjoying careers with Connacht and Northampton respectively.
The great thing about these lads is that whenever they are in Lymm with some spare time they will come along to watch matches at the Club, meet their old team mates and have a beer. In addition, we have seen a steady stream of players gaining representative age group honours with Cheshire, the North of England, and even England, Scotland and Wales.
It’s fair to say that over the 10 years we have enjoyed considerably more than our fair share of team successes with both Senior and Junior Colts. In this period these teams have won 39 trophies and been runners-up 12 times. We have consistently played in the top Northwest Colts League, winning League 9 titles and finishing as runners-up on 5 occasions; and won 11 Cheshire Colts cups and being losing finalists 4 times.
I guess though, the most striking performances were in competitions which are now, no longer being held. From 2009 to 2015 the “Cock o’ the North Cup” was contested between the 2 top Senior Colts teams from either side of the Pennines. Remarkably, Lymm won this in 4 of these 7 seasons. No other team won more than once.
Finally, in 2009 our Junior Colts won the RFU’s National U17 Cup, beating Exeter Chiefs 13-10 in the final. This competition ceased after the 2017 final – in which Lymm also appeared – and Lymm remains the only northern club ever to have won this competition and one of only three clubs nationwide to have contested more than one final. I think it will be hard for anyone to argue that this performance record is amongst the best, if not the best, Colts record in the country.
Q: How has the club infrastructure improved in that time?
As a community oriented amateur club we invest any surplus we generate in two things – our coaching and our facilities. This has to be the way that we, as a club that is run by volunteers, can build a sustainable future.
One of the challenges that we had had to combat over many years was that with only one pitch of our own, and a growing playing membership (especially in the Mini & Junior rugby section), we had to use pitches (or just spare pieces of grass) in a range of locations “across the parish”.
This tended to create age groups that would operate in silos and there would be little engagement between coaching and parent groups. The major investment we made in land acquisition and development in the period 2006 to 2010 has transformed the Club making it really feel like one Club.
There is considerably more interaction between the age groups and with senior players; parent groups have been able to enjoy the social facilities and, if they have more than one child, watch them both play in the same location! Importantly, there has been much more engagement and sharing of ideas and expertise between the various age group coaches as a consequence.
This investment was then followed by the installation of new floodlights, investment in grounds equipment and a “halfway house” to provide pitch side teas and coffees for parents.
Q: Has this had an impact on the Mini & Junior membership and how have they responded?
From 2009 to 2014, our membership grew significantly, broadly doubling from c200 to c400 over this period. We’re now still at this number which I think it will probably be difficult to build on with our current infrastructure given the physical limits we have on pitch usage, Clubhouse capacity; car parking etc.
One thing I am always amazed at though is that our Mini & Junior and Colts players come from around 100 different schools from around the local area. These challenges are undoubtedly the consequence of our success and so fall in the “nice to have” category.
Hopefully, the proposal to build an Artificial Grass Pitch at the Club together with our ambitious new Clubhouse project will provide the solutions which will allow us to grow even further in the coming years.
Q: What are the main issues in the future the rugby club needs to be aware of/guard against?
Complacency is my biggest concern. We have undoubtedly enjoyed great success in many areas over the past 10 years, but we do need to continue to innovate, introduce new ways of doing things and make the experience of playing at Lymm enjoyable and differentiated for our players and their parents.
Kids today have lots of options as to how to spend their leisure time – certainly many more than I did! – So we need to provide such a good experience that it always sits near the top of the available options.
Q: What has given you most satisfaction?
I have derived the most satisfaction from seeing the impressive number of boys that have “graduated” from our Colts Academy to pull on a First XV shirt for Lymm, and play hugely competitive league rugby for one of the top 100 clubs in the country.
There are so many players who have successfully made this transition that I couldn’t possibly name them all. They stretch from Jordan Widdrington and Sam Mullarkey, who were in that first Colts Academy cohort and are key members of our First team squad today, to Joe Murphy who, as an 18-year old second row, made his debut in April this year.
I’m confident that this will continue with many of the current Colts Academy setting their sights on following this path.
Q: Where do you see the future for the club as a whole and the Mini & Junior Section and Colts Academy within that?
The successful delivery of the current development plans will undoubtedly propel the Club to the next level – whatever that is – and will secure the future of rugby and the other sports we support at Lymm for future generations.
This can only be positive for the Club as a whole and the Mini & Junior Section and Colts Academy in particular. We have strong foundations, a great culture and a “can do” attitude – these are worth their weight in gold.
Is the future bright in green, black and white?
Lymm Rugby Club Mini & Junior and Colts Academy – PART TWO!
In the second interview of a two-part series, Will Hind, the incoming Chairman of Lymm Rugby Club’s Mini & Junior and Colts Academy, answers some key questions about his plans for the future of this section of the club.
Q: Will Hind, as incoming Chairman of the Mini & Junior and Colts Academy at Lymm Rugby Club, what are your aspirations for the Colts Academy?
Aspirations need to come from the players themselves, but I want the academy to be the place where those aspirations can be formed, where the lads playing are proud to play for Lymm, but perhaps more importantly want to play for each other.
The Colts Academy is the stepping point into senior rugby and we want as many as possible of them having fun, sitting on the beam in the clubhouse and playing, ideally for Lymm, for years to come.
Q: How do you see this benefiting Lymm RFC and rugby as a whole, for the region?
Having a strong academy means that we will have competitive Junior and Senior Colts’ teams, playing in their respective Halbro, age-based Colts leagues and cup competitions.
It means that both squads continue to enjoy playing rugby; it means that we have a strong foundation of players, who will know the style and type of rugby Lymm aspires to and can easily move up into senior rugby and it means that we should continue to attract all those who want to play club rugby but don’t necessarily aspire to the county or pro set ups.
The academy is an essential part of making sure that we have a clear pathway for our colts through to open age rugby at Lymm. Most importantly that they enjoy themselves, both on and off the park, being part of a great members club.
Q: What problems do you foresee and how do you propose we counter them?
The changing face of rugby is putting more and more of a squeeze on amateur clubs like Lymm. Our success depends on keeping a thriving colts and academy section, who are playing for our club because they want to, because they like the style of play and because they enjoy being part of something exciting.
To keep this requires huge commitment, knowledge and skill – which actually may surpass that of many of the parents who up to these ages have been the coaches.
We also have to make sure that both our teams have sufficient numbers of players, to lessen the impact from any call-ups from county or other RFU representative bodies, and still turn out a competitive side. It is essential that we have a team who can play, even when other duties may call some key players away. The needs of the Squad are greater than those of the individual.
As the season progresses, some Senior Colts may have the chance to play some senior team games and likewise Junior Colts to play for the Senior Colts. However, each team will maintain its individual identity with squad strength in depth ensuring everyone gets a game who wants a game.
Q: What improvements are you planning for this and the mini and junior sections?
Improvements on Andy’s tenure is a difficult question – but we are trying to give the Colts Academy more impetus and visibility. We wish to encourage lads of all abilities to keep playing and enjoying playing rugby with their mates. We are not just focusing on finding potential future 1st team players but all players who will be proud to pull on a Lymm shirt and play for Lymm.
To help this and to overcome some of the issues we have mentioned above we are now structuring the training to be under the remit of the first team coaches, who will oversee the progress, instil something of a Lymm style and who, together with some of the current first team players, can really give an edge and extra something to these colts and help them get the most from their game.
Q: What is your overall message to both the parents and players in the Mini, Junior and Colts section of Lymm Rugby Club?
Lymm RFC is a community members club, where lifetime friendships for individuals and families develop. We all get out what we put in to the club. We will do our best to ensure that the Mini’s/Junior’s and Colts players get the best experience, have the best fun and get the most enjoyment from this great game. I hope that they see that the support from the club to enable us to do that, is very apparent.
This club has big, exciting plans and it is great to be involved in, but like all these things these big plans take many small things to make them come true. Artificial pitches, new club houses and training areas are all within our grasp – help us to help you achieve them!