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Behind the scenes - Ealing Trailfinders Academy

Newly appointed academy head coach Paddy Gill sits down to talk about his history with the club and what he hopes to bring in his role within the Trailfinders youth system.

By Ryan Fitzgerald-Nolan

The coach had an impressive youth career himself, including leading London Irish to under 19s London League and Cup glory. 

Gill, who has had a multitude of roles within Trailfinders over a fifteen year period, pulled on the Green and White shirt between 2004 and 2011 and helped the team to their promotion to National League 1 in the 2010/11 campaign. 

Now, after a stint as skills coach, Gill takes the reins of the academy and oversees the exciting youth project underway at Vallis Way and beyond. 

Here’s what Paddy Gill had to say on his new role and much more.

Can you describe your time at Ealing Trailfinders?

PG: “I came in as a player in the lower leagues, and stayed around for quite a long time. Then in 2011, I moved up north for a period of time to coach up there and finish my degree. 

I then moved back to the club as a coach in the National One with Ben (Ward) when he took over as Director of Rugby. In 2014, when I restarted working here, from a coaching perspective with the seniors, and then into team management, and then officially since yesterday, head coach of the academy.”

What attracted you to Trailfinders and why have you stayed for so long?

PG: “To begin with, it was a group of people I already knew that were down here and I knew the club had a lot of ambition at the time, even for a much lower level. I think it was done differently here, facilities were already really good. 

I was a young lad, I always wanted to play. I was 21, I was coaching with the old Director of Rugby for a short period of time, and he asked if I fancied coming to Ealing. I came along, and because I already knew a few players, all of us in a similar part of our lives, wanted to start to enjoy our rugby and play with friends. The crop of players that were put together here were from a much higher level that we went through the league’s fairly quickly. 

As a group, we became really close and I loved coming every Tuesday and Thursday night. Saturday nights after games when we were almost guaranteed we were going to go off for a beer, a lot of girlfriends and ex-girlfriends used to come down with family too, it was a really nice place to be and it was obvious that Mike Gooley wanted the club to develop to the highest level it could possibly go. Luckily I was part of that for years. 

We had a few tough seasons, we’d suffer one year and then we’d always get it right and then we’d go up. For me, it was just being part of a place that was going to go somewhere. Even now, some of the boys are joining for that now and are looking for Championship to Premiership. We were looking at lower leagues to National 1. If we got to National 1, we were doing so well, and now we’re looking at it the other way. 

Every year that you’re here, even at a lower level something new is happening every season. New things were built that were the next step, like the rehab gym was built and that was a good step forward, and you think, “This isn’t stopping, something is happening here.” 

Then I came back as a coach with Ben when he got the DoR job, and that was an absolute no-brainer because I knew Ben wouldn’t take the job if it wasn’t going to kick on. For me, I wanted to have a lot of memories that I wanted to put my mark on if I could. 

It's one of them when we get together as a group with the boys, and when we do, it’s as if we’re back training with each other on a Thursday night. That was always the case, because we always knew each other so well prior to playing here that, each year we drag a few more friends that were at other clubs who thought that it was their time to join Ealing as well. 

Naturally the number of friends just grew more and more to the stage where we could play ourselves, we knew each other inside out. Yes the coaching was good, but we probably could have done it off our own backs prior to that year that I left. We trusted each other inside out, we knew exactly how we played. We kept getting guys from other clubs that we knew socially thinking, “Things are happening there, let’s go down the road.” We didn’t even have to recruit them necessarily, they'd just come. 

That was in the years before I left, and the years in between they had been in the Championship and I was following as a fan, coming down from Leeds. They had a really tough season with a few tough results, and I was sitting there as someone due to come back not knowing if they are going to be a Championship side or a National 1 side as a coach. Unfortunately, it didn't go to plan and I was coming in as a National 1 coach. We then had a really good season and we went up straight away, a really tough long season and it just kicked on from there.”

What were your roles with the club in the past?

PG: “I was skills and backs coach from 2014 to 2017, so that was all about running our skill sessions for the seniors. Ben Ward was playing at the time, so I was very much his eyes and ears on matchday and in training obviously and that was something that we put a lot of trust between each other from that side of things. He trusted what I had to say. 

When I moved into the team management side, it was everything off-field. Ordering kit stuff, ordering all the gear, travel and accommodation, helping guys with where they would live and all the registration processes for the RFU; anything from the management side that you would expect away from contracts. It’s slightly different to Premiership sides that tend to have a kit man and a team manager, whereas here at the moment it’s one. 

On top of that, a couple of years ago I stopped as the head coach of the Brunel side as well as the team manager job. It was only last season we hired a full time head coach for that role because it was too much to take on as a growing part of the club. 

Obviously then, transitioning from team manager into head coach, now that role has changed as well from a typical head coach role, it’s more of a Director of Rugby for the academy with a head coach built in because it’s not just the coaching side. It’s the managing role of the staff, all of the CPD, managing the departments, expectations and partnerships away from here with Henley College, Cardinal Newman and St.Joes and the recruitment side. It’s much more than on the pitch, it's all about growing the academy. 

This role is, I suppose, the management and coaching from what I've been doing with the seniors and with Brunel have come together to one role where I'd like to think Wardy’s given the trust of what I’ve done and think “Yeah, he knows where this wants to go” and I do know where I want the club to go. 

I’ve been here a long time, I’ve seen it come through and how Ben’s done things with the seniors and there’s things that I will continue to similarly do with the academy. It’s progressed really nicely into a role that really suits me and it's just a matter of rolling that out now for the next couple of years.”

Can you describe your current role as academy head coach, and if it differs to the Premiership or the Championship?

PG: “Most academies in the Premiership have an academy manager and academy head coach, because that’s what the RFU tend to say you have to have. At most clubs you’re looking at 15-20 guys that are classed as senior academy players that then train with a group that will often travel with the seniors on their teams. Underneath that, they have got junior academies that might have a link with other colleges, along with mini coaches that will look for that. 

Here, we have got such a different model. We’ve got 76 guys on sight today with more guys rejoining us on the 28th June and 5th July. We’re not restricted on players and where they come from, because we’re not a Premiership academy we don’t have a specific region and that’s why we have lads from around the country that we can bring in. That’s our USP, we don’t have to take specifically from Berkshire or Middlesex, we can take them from wherever we want. A kid might not be in favour in their catchment area, but we can offer them to come down to London. 

The big thing that we do, because of the university programme that we run, guys have got time to mature at university. This is not a one year thing where if you're not good enough, you have to leave. You have three years at uni where you can work hard, physically as well as your skill work, and then on top of that you can leave with a degree and potentially a professional contract. 

The programme that we’re running and the detail that we go into with nutrition, player development, we have people that work to find out what players want to do post-career, and links with businesses and the armed forces to give them the best possible route if rugby doesn’t work out. They're leaving with a very good programme, a really good rugby player but just missed out and are in a good position to get work. 

On top of that, we’re setting up regional academies which are Brunel’s way of reaching out around the South East, where we can start to get guys from the Sussex and Kent area and the guys that aren't necessarily seen by the big clubs’ academies. It’s our way of giving them a bit more time, I have no doubt that the staff here are just as good, if not better, than academy staff in the Premiership. 

The extra work guys put in will put us on that level where clubs will be jealous of the programme we have put together and we’re already seeing clubs trying to match that in the Premiership. It's about us getting ahead of the curve and doing things differently. 

With Mike Gooley, we’ve got the backing with what he’s about and the legacy with what he’s trying to do and try to take it by storm. People may look at it and think that this isn’t any normal programme, this is done in such a way that you can argue could be very aggressive, but we’re doing this because we want to be the best and want to be the best quickly. If that puts a few noses out, then so be it. 

We’re here to put something together that is not just covering players that aren’t seen as being good enough, we’re rolling out a really good project, especially with the facilities we’re putting down at Brunel through the Mike Gooley Foundation. There’s a brand new artificial pitch, an enormous gym; the facilities are growing all the time and it’s only going to benefit the students and the players. If we get a few more guys coming through to put on the Ealing shirt, which is the main goal, then great!”

What is a typical day for you now as the head coach of the academy?

PG: “On a training day, we have three gym groups that are assigned at Trailfinders and are all random for guys to get to know each other and build better relationships. Due to Covid, it was hard for guys last year to mix a bit, so unfortunately we had a bit of a split so we’ve got to have mixed groups. 

They'll go into the gym for an hour, and I’ll go in to see how they’re getting on and introduce myself. After gym is skill sessions, so Brett Wilkinson, who is one of our new coaches, Brooksy and myself will help out with those groups in testing their skill level and going through plays that we might need later on. That’ll be the same for three times in the morning, there’s an hour gym session for each group followed by 40 minutes of skills each. Yesterday was the first time myself and the coaches went into the gym to try and work through some of the beers we’ve had in lockdown. 

After that, we’d sit down as a coaching group and sit down to discuss the afternoon, making sure everything we have planned is bang on with timings and what we aim for in each session and what each coach has to look for. Then we have our theme meetings going through what we’re all about this year and present that to the guys. Yesterday we were outside with two rugby groups and did some fitness work with Colm O’Sullivan. 

It wasn't overly tough yesterday as their first rugby session, we want to break them in easily and get through as many days in pre-season with as many players as possible. We don't want to break them down too early; we want to push them more in the end. Yesterday we sat down and discussed the day and any issues with regards to timing or group numbers and then signed off for the day. 

On a day off, strength and conditioning staff have about 9 or 10 boys in that didn’t meet their yo-yo target, and are put through a bit of extra work on their day off. It’s hard for them but it will benefit them in the long run. I’ll pop my head in to see how they’re doing, they don’t see it as a punishment but it’s helping them to where they need to go. After that we go through some posters and tidy up some group issues, potentially looking at some time away with the navy or RAF. 

We use days off as a big admin day when the lads aren’t here, because before you know it you’re out of the office on most days. Three gym sessions, three group sessions and then three skill sessions and you’re already at 4pm and you’re not going to be in the office for more than half an hour. The big thing with the rugby guys is to tell them when to know when to get a bite to eat, making sure they're well hydrated. The days that I don’t normally see players are used to make sure I’m always prepped. 

Once that sorts itself out, then I’ll meet with staff and sit down and talk about their development plans individually and see what they want to do while they’re here. For us it’s about developing staff, hoping that they want to stay and want to keep getting better. Once we get little creases ironed out from the programme, then I can let the programme roll away and I can start to do other things. 

That’s that other side of the job, the expectation from Tom McLaughlin and Ben to then manage them partnerships away from here. These things can be easy to forget when you’re busy, but it’s my job to keep a tab on the heads of departments to make sure that they nail their areas and as long as that happens, we’ll be fine. If I take my eye off the ball and one of the guys knocks off and their department does the same, before you know it you’ve got a problem. It’s just about keeping on top of that.”

Can you speak on the importance of your current partnerships with universities such as Brunel?

PG: “Myself and Ben are both firm believers in education and the importance of it. Yes some players can come straight from school, be really good rugby players, do nothing else and that will be it. But there are too many players leaving their professional contracts at the age of 21, 22 with absolutely nothing to back that up. 

That's one reason why Ben and Mike especially wanted to get into the university side of things, it gave us a good balance of people coming in who have got a focus and can work on things other than just rugby. On top of that, we can use this as a vehicle to get Brunel University to buck rugby which will allow us to recruit some very high end players that can play at that level and control their game time at that level. Hopefully then, players like Alex Dombrandt, who left Cardiff Met and went straight into the Premiership because the standard of that rugby is so strong. 

For us, we can then go and recruit boys of a really good standard with the aim of putting them in an Ealing shirt but also in Brunel leagues at the same time. Having programmes that allow those players to develop physically without the time pressure of being released in a year if you’re not ready. These lads can build hard over a period of time, props especially because they tend to develop later. 

A lot of props come through university and end up playing professionally when they’re 23, 24. If we get these players when they’re 18, we can teach them the way we want them to be done three years before we have to make a decision on the player. If you looked at the amount of under 18 players in the country, it would be crazy, and there are only so many players that can be taken by Premiership clubs. 

For us, we’re looking at the guys who just missed out. Elliot Chilvers is an example, who is in the senior training group now. He was always on the radar for Saints, but never got fully picked up by the under 18s and their full time academy. We took him on, and he proved within six months that he was clearly good enough and has already got a cap for the seniors. That’s what we’re all about. Ben believes that if you’re good enough, you play- whether you’re 18 or 35, if you’re good enough you can play. 

We’re setting ourselves up with a university that has got just as much ambition as us to go back to the level they are at. Around 2001, 2002, late nineties, Brunel was one of the biggest universities in the country, if not Europe. They were doing European competitions in rugby and had so many quality players coming through in that era. Unfortunately, it didn't go for them for a 15 to 20 year period. But they have a lot of backing for us and we have a lot of backing for them to turn that around and be the best in Britain. Looking at Hartpury and the way they’ve done things, we don’t want to just go to Hartpury and pick them up later on, they're coming through our programme, into our Ealing shirt and playing for us and pushing our club forward into the Premiership. 

Obviously we have our partnerships with Henley College, Cardinal Newman, St.Joe’s, which are 16-18’s. There are so many quality players that we have got and have involvement in and schools are really keen to push our way. Again, we’re not just seeing them now at 18, it’s also 16. Guys can see our coaches, we can see where they’re at and get the coaching they need to get. Similar to what the Premiership academies do, but the difference is that we’re doing this in the South East and not just our area. That’s going to be spread out further under our scouting, which will probably be under Brunel’s banner. We’ll be getting paid scouts around the nation that suit Brunel. 

We want to be seeing these players as early as possible, to then put them through Brunel and better the player, the more chance they’ll play for Ealing. Brunel will always benefit off the back of that, they’ll keep winning games and leagues, be the best in Britain and back to where they were. 

We’ll use that as our vehicle then to then use it as game time when Wardy wants players they can train all week, play for the Brunel team on a Wednesday and then play for Ealing the following week. We’re run by the exact same people, there will be no conflict of interest. These players are under our banner, they’re playing for Brunel and if they’re ready they'll play.”

What are your big plans for the future in regards to the academy with Trailfinders?

PG: “When we talk about the academy, it’s not a side project. It’s already front and centre of the plans for the club, which is why I took the job and why I massively wanted to be involved. 

I coached at Leeds Beckett when they were competing in Super Rugby. I’ve been there and seen how these places progress, and the club has not hidden behind the fact that we want to be the best academy in the UK, simple as that. Everyone might be thinking, “Well, what is this about? Aren't you just throwing money at it?” Well, we are. We are going to be the best in the UK. 

When these lads are going to Loughborough and Exeter universities for their reputation, I understand that they might not come to us for reputation, but maybe for the Ealing badge. In a few years time, they will be joining because Brunel is the best university team in Britain. Hands down, I have absolutely no doubt about that. 

We started pre-season on the 31st May, and we’ve got 22 members of staff working in the academy alone. You look at the university programmes and they have a DoR, a head coach and they’ll have some strength and conditioning members of staff. Everybody else tends to use staff that are already on sight to help them get provision where they can. I’m not saying these programmes are not good, they are good programmes within their own right. We're doing things differently, this is a professional university rugby side under the banner of the Trailfinders Rugby academy. The facilities are second to none, they won’t get built once, get played in once and that will never happen again. 

The plans for phase two will be going on and what the next step will be, and the first step isn’t finished. It’s constantly moving forward and I think universities will look at that and want in on this as well. They’re now signing up to projects because they know they’re going to benefit as well. 

For us to be the best, we have to bring in the best staff and facilities and the best players too, and in a couple of years, when we are competing in Super Rugby, there will be guys bending over backwards to join this programme without being recruited because they just want to bein the best university. Yes we will still recruit people, but we won’t have to do it in the aggressive way we are, they join because they want to be a part of it. 

A lot of universities will have connections to clubs like in Exeter, but in my opinion that’s what it is; a link. This is a direct running facility with all our staff on sight with the Trailfinders first team, where they can directly see who is good enough versus someone else. I was team manager for the seniors, Steven Neville was the scrum coach for the seniors and the forwards coach for the academy- we directly saw who was going to be a first team player and whether they had something. That type of thing doesn't usually happen, normally its a phone call away. Outside of that, no one has a direct link like we have, or any other link where it’s run by the same people.”