Scholarship Midseason Review
Posted: Tuesday 18th June 2019 - 4:43 PM
Castleford, almost by default, is – and always has been – a thriving rugby league town. While the rest of the nation obsesses over the round ball, our town has always existed in something of a vacuum. When you cross the border, the 13-man code is king.
However, over the last few years, a worrying trend has emerged. There is an understandable expectation amongst Castleford supporters that home-grown talent in our youth system is a given – and why shouldn’t there be, with so many ‘Cas lads’ currently in and around the first team squad?
But, as Tigers’ Head of Youth Darren Higgins explains, this is no longer necessarily the case.
“I think there’s a real misconception that loads of kids are playing rugby in Cas, but they’re just not anymore.
“We’ve got three or four clubs who run most age groups, but after that it’s really sporadic.
“In years gone by, it was really easy in this area because we had lots of young talent to choose from, and this is mirroring a real problem the sport has nationwide.”
The magnitude of this growing issue is perhaps best exemplified by the Tigers’ blossoming scholarship outfit that have enjoyed a fantastic start to their 2019 season in recent weeks.
Of the twenty 16-year-olds involved in Danny Evans’ squad, remarkably, just two are Castleford-based and play for a club with a WF10 postcode.
In essence, it’s a far from ideal situation for the Tigers’ youth department, but the changing nature of the game has forced us to look further afield in the hunt for the game’s brightest talent.
“We’d prefer to recruit locally but there’s just not enough kids playing the game,” explains Higgins.
“We need to find a way to get kids playing again because the talent pool is shrinking and making it a lot more difficult.
“I think it’s obvious the game, the RFL and professional clubs need to do more to engage more kids and get them playing because recruitment is becoming extremely tough, especially with other clubs being so pro-active about it now because they also need to go into new areas.”
This new issue in rugby league has created added emphasis on the abilities of clubs to delve deeper into the talent pool, with less available in their individual, traditional catchment areas.
This is an area where Castleford are striving however, with our Talent ID program in operation constantly. The Tigers have adapted well as the battle for the next young stars intensifies.
“Our Talent ID process begins at under 13s and we set ourselves the challenge of attending every game up to under 16s level in the local area,” Higgins explains.
“We’re looking for future potential in these players rather than current performance and a bunch of variables are considered.
“We look at technical and tactical ability, athletic potential and we have an emphasis on mental characteristics, which we’ve developed our own framework for, adapted by a model used by the FA. Plus, there’s wider consideration for areas such as maturation, relative age affect, plating age and the level of coaching a player is receiving at that level.”
To this day, the Tigers’ academy still possesses a Castleford identity – particularly in the latest batch of 15-year-olds picked up by the club this past year – but there’s no doubt that the aforementioned issues have given the club little choice but to widen their search.
The likes of Jacques O’Neill, Lewis Peachey and Robbie Storey are all notable examples of youngsters who have joined the club in recent years from elsewhere in the country.
“Ultimately we’d prefer to bring local lads in, because it works easier in terms of logistics and travel, but if we feel someone’s good enough from further afield, we will recruit and obviously, as I’ve mentioned, that’s become a little more common over the past couple of years.
“We’ve had some success in that too thanks to the systems we have in place.
“There have been multiple occasions where lads have turned down the likes of Leeds and Wigan and come to Cas instead – that’s massive for us.”
The scouting process itself is something that’s rarely discussed, but the attention to detail involved is genuinely impressive.
Higgins explains that, by the time a player signs for the Tigers, they will have been watched around twenty times playing for their community club by a number of different scouts. Every angle is covered, leaving nothing to chance.
“We have a bit of a different approach to other clubs who are very visual when they’re out and about - we don’t think that’s appropriate but Cas fans should rest easy knowing that, if there’s a junior game in the local area, we are there and we are watching.”
Despite the tough climate, the Tigers have continued to make big strides in the youth system in recent seasons, and they’ve reaped the rewards. A number of players have gone on to represent Yorkshire and England at academy level, the Tigers’ U19s enjoyed an incredible season in 2017 - mirroring the first team by reaching a grand final – and a host of youngsters have made their first team debuts, with O’Neill being the most recent.
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