When the rugby World Cup comes to England we will see athletes at the peak of physical fitness. However rugby union in England is a game of two very distinct but inter-linked entities. The professional game is populated by super athletes built on the academy system. The amateur game is built on the goodwill of super enthusiasts not super athletes, where training is done after work if possible, match fees are the norm and it is not unusual for players to be unavailable the week before their annual skiing holiday, mates wedding or work.
Although the players look completely different and act differently the game is essentially the same. The two games depend on each other for survival and continuity. The amateur game relies on the professional game relies for revenues and publicity. The professional game relies on the amateur game for its fans and its grass roots for future players. This is where the problem of the academy system comes in.
It is first relevant to look at rugby pre-professionalism. It was based on the school system, if a young player was good they progressed to a local club or the county representative system. There was no restrictions regarding number of games played. A county game was as important as a district game, a school game was as important as a club colts game. The player would then often play a bit of reasonably competitive university rugby.
Contrast this with the current situation, a decent young player is picked up in the school or club system. This player is then picked up by the local premiership or national one side. This player has then all the resources of this big club, in return the player has to limit the amount of games he plays. No club rugby, no school rugby and often although at university no university rugby This leads to two problems in the game, firstly junior clubs do not have good young players coming through the ranks stifling the lifeblood of the game. The second problem is that the players rugby intelligence is lacking. It is hard to equate a professional rugby match to a second XV match in the shires of England but a young player playing an old head can often learn more about the dark arts of the game. There is also a case that these players are missing out on the other side of the game the beers and the comradeship. Sacrificing it for protein shakes and hard-nosed ambition to make it as a professional sportsman.
So what is the solution? Keep the academies but let players, play. Let good young players play in the junior clubs, take what they learn in the academies but put it too good use in proper competition against older more experienced players. Players who might not be as fit, but certainly know a few things about the game not taught in the coaching manual. These players also know the joy of playing without reward just playing for your mates and a beer on a Saturday evening.