Developing Welsh rugby’s next generation: Gruff Rees

9 Jan


As Ospreys skills coach and the newly-appointed head coach of the Wales Under 18 side, Gruff Rees is just the man to give an encouraging, if cautionary, assessment of Welsh rugby.

Sporting an Ospreys hat and hoodie together with a pair of WRU tracksuit bottoms, Rees looks the part, and he talks it too, as he shares with The XV his thoughts about future Welsh prospects, the regional game and the Premiership.

We meet for a coffee straight after a day’s work with the Ospreys, although there is little need for caffeine to enliven Rees (above, centre, with Wales Under 18s team manager Gethin Watts and assistant Dale McIntosh), who is relishing his new role with the Wales Under 18s.

“We’ve been to a lot of games,” Rees says of his first two months in the job. “We’ve watched a lot of players, assessed every part of every individual’s game and, overall, the standard is good.

“Having been involved in skills coaching for a number of years now, I think youth rugby in Wales is in good health,” Rees says. “I see a lot of expression, with players thinking on their feet and making good decisions. So in terms of creating an elite squad of 32 for the Wales Under 18s, there’s a lot to like.”

Rees (below) has worked with the Ospreys for five years, and although he still a young man in coaching terms at 35 years old, he has already amassed a decade’s worth of coaching experience with Glamorgan Wanderers, Neath and his two current roles.

As a skills coach, Rees is tasked with developing players technically and tactically, and with his new role with the Welsh Rugby Union, the focus is now on honing the skills of Wales’s emerging talents.

Rees is pleased with the standard of youth rugby in Wales, but he is loath to placing too much expectation on young shoulders too soon.

“I don’t think a player is done any favours when he’s thrown in at the deep end and put on a pedestal at 18 years old,” Rees says. “Players need to earn the right to play at the highest level but, perhaps in Welsh culture, that doesn’t necessarily happen.”

Educated at Ysgol Glantaf, where he was instilled with a “good rugby playing philosophy”, Rees wants to pass on the same ethos to future generations of Welsh players.

“Clearly a culture has grown in the game for bigger, faster, stronger players,” Rees says. “We’ve got to keep up with that, but at the Ospreys we’re adamant that we don’t just want gym monkeys. There has to be a balance between the physical and technical.

“The gym culture does creep into schools and colleges, and particularly structured coaching can sometimes lead to one-dimensional rugby, where it becomes a one-on-one physical contest.

“But that’s not what we’re looking to do with the Wales Under 18s. We’re hoping to create a brand of rugby where players always have the option to run and play with their heads up.”

One player who is benefitting from such a positive philosophy is Matthew Morgan, the 18-year-old outside-half currently making a name for himself with the Ospreys and Swansea.

Morgan (below) has already been featured by The XV and, despite his diminutive frame, the teenager has made a significant impact whenever he has played this season.

Rees, however, is wary of the Welsh tendency to overhype and burden a player at a young age (Morgan has already been compared to Wales and Lions great Phil Bennett), and he is keen for Morgan to develop gradually.

“Matthew has impressed, but it’s too soon to be putting players on a pedestal when they’re 18,” Rees says. “There needs to be a more gradual process, and that’s what we’re trying to implement with the Ospreys.

“At Ospreys training, academy players train together in the morning and, then in the afternoon, we integrate them with the senior players, so players such as Matthew are allowed to test themselves against the likes of Dan Biggar and Marty Holah.

“As well as his academy contract with the Ospreys, Matthew is then also given valuable game time with Swansea in the Premiership.”

The Premiership has been a topic of heated debate of late, with Wales coach Warren Gatland among those calling for the league to be reduced in size to give younger players more of a chance to play.

And while Rees also thinks there is a plausible case for condensing the league, he does not think the Premiership should simply be a breeding ground for academy products alone.

“I wouldn’t want the Premiership just to be a young man’s league,” Rees says. “I actually like the fact that there are sides out there, such as Neath, who have seasoned players who are battle hardened and have something to offer.

“It’s brilliant for the younger players to come up against the more experienced likes of Gareth Wyatt (the former Wales winger who still plays for Pontypridd), who have different strengths and weaknesses to the players they face at academy level.”

A microcosm of the WRU itself, the Premiership is not perfect, but it is a work in progress which provides Welsh rugby with a structure that is integral to its long-term development.

“By and large, it (the state of Welsh rugby) does encourage me,” Rees says. “The relationship between regions and schools and colleges could be better, and we need to be better as a country in identifying and developing talent.

“But from what I see, there is still a real passion for rugby in Wales and, with the structure the WRU has in place, hopefully it can get better and better.”

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5 Responses to “Developing Welsh rugby’s next generation: Gruff Rees”

  1. Omar January 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    I think the new structure of Welsh rugby is starting to bear fruit. We seem to have more depth than I can ever remember and agree we have to adopt modern, professional methods in training but maintain the Welsh tradition of skill and intelligence. But we need to be careful not to put young coaches on a pedestal 🙂

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