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The recruitment and retention of young players at most clubs seems to be the biggest headache with numbers seemingly dwindling at all age levels in the junior ranks. Keeping the older age groups engaged and interested can be equally as challenging, especially if those players cannot see a clear path to playing at a higher level or senior rugby. How refreshing therefore to come across a group of committed and dedicated seniors who are looking to buck this trend purely to the benefit of those players and their future in the game.

Sussex Barbarians play at a sub county level which fits between clubs and the full County team.  The program evolved from a regional development program which started at U13’s but stopped at the end of the U15’s season.   A group of like minded coaches  lead by Head Coach James Newton and supported by the Sussex Chair of Representative rugby were concerned about the retention of late developers in the U16-U18’s.  They believed that with further development many more players would stay in the game and play at a higher level (county aspiring players).  Our only criteria on eligibility is a recommendation from a players club and a will to attend the development sessions.  The concept is now in its third season, which started at U16 and will run through to U20s rugby, in order to support our county U20 program.  The support to the program from the players and their parents is superb, they can see a pathway towards playing at a more advanced standard of rugby which in the past did not exist.

Founder member and coach Mike Attfield spoke to Rugby Monthly recently about the programme and their hopes, aspirations and achievements so far –

“The Barbarians are a development organisation with no affiliation to a club. We have over 40 players registered from most clubs in Sussex. Our sole aim is to retain players within the game by helping them release their potential to play at a higher standard, such as County, which should increase their enjoyment of the game.  It is also hoped that their increased ability will help improve the standard of play within their clubs.  We also help coaches develop and hope to come to an arrangement with Sussex County where those with the ambition can become county coaches.  Any player can join the program at any time, all they need is a recommendation from their club or school/college’s head coach or by coaches recommending players from opposition teams during league or friendly matches.   This season six players have joined the program via that form of recommendation.

As part of the Sussex youth development program we have a strong relationship with the County at its relevant age groups.  This season the program at U17’s has provided ten players to the County squad (22 in total so far). Several are now firm choices for the county U17 A side.  We believe that most of those players would have in the past been overlooked and some may even have drifted out of the game.   This success has given the rest of our squad encouragement to stay with the program.

However at the moment the idea seems unique to Sussex County and this season we have had problems finding games. Next season we hope more publicity we will be able to get more clubs, academies and schools/colleges interested in playing the Barbarians.  We will be happy to play training games that might help the development of players/teams outside Sussex County.

Our program is arranged to fit in with the structured rugby season so as not to clash with club, school/college or county commitments.  The idea is beginning to gain momentum and acknowledgement by neighbouring counties. It is a slow progress but we hope this article will help accelerate the process.

What is pleasing is to see how the players respond to encouragement and the experience of playing at a higher standard.  The speed at which the players have gelled as a team is also impressive.  They all show a commitment to the program and are eager to progress.  It is also rewarding to see how they have helped make what was an initial idea from a few like minded coaches, come to fruition.”

Head Coach James Newton is very positive about what has been achieved so far, telling Rugby Monthly –

“The Ability to play at a higher level should not just be selected on size.  We have numerous players with an abundance of creativity and passion, which is why they are great to coach and so dangerous to play against. This season we have played against the Sussex County U17 A/B side, Farnham Academy U18 and Brighton U18, but our players need and have requested they play more games next season.  We are therefore currently looking for extra fixtures for our 2017/18 season at U18’s.”

At Rugby Monthly we think this is an excellent idea and shows what can be achieved for the growth of the game, and retention of younger players, when positive, dedicated and like minded people get together. They all deserve a huge pat on the back for their hard work.

Should any team require  further information on dates available in the coming season  and/or how the idea started to develop please get into contact with the Manager at mike.attfield@sky.com

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