Head of Recruitment at Ealing Trailfinders, Alex Shaw, breaks down what they believe is the UK’s most comprehensive university rugby programme. 

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English rugby, with its large and physically gifted player pool, has very little difficulty bringing through new waves of future stars.

Whether that is the unerring workrate and determination of a technical thoroughbred like Jonny Wilkinson, the raw physical potential of someone who has won the genetic lottery like Manu Tuilagi, or even the combination of the two in someone such as Maro Itoje, English rugby has little trouble identifying, nurturing and developing them.

(Continue reading below…)

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Where English rugby can frequently let itself down, however, is in the identification of players just below that level. With such an abundant player pool and the financial strength to recruit heavily from abroad, professional rugby in England is not a kind place to the late developers, the diamonds in the rough or those who have transitioned late to the sport.

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Pound-for-pound, English rugby doesn’t even come close to being the most efficient or successful nation in world rugby at tapping into its own player pool.

There are lots of reasons around this, but ultimately the combination of having to make a call on whether or not a player is a professional at 18 years of age, a salary cap in the Gallagher Premiership and an ease with which senior players can be lured from southern hemisphere makes England an unforgiving rugby environment for players who aren’t polished technically and physically ready immediately or very quickly after they leave school.

That is something that Ealing Trailfinders are looking to address with their partnership with Brunel University, an academy programme which the Championship club believes is most comprehensive. First up, a declaration: I have been working this season as Ealing’s head of recruitment so the nurturing of young players is something close to my heart.

The idea of giving players an extra three or four years to develop while they get a degree is nothing new. It was the primary route into the game before the professional era and even now there are some excellent programmes operating at institutions such as Loughborough, Leeds Beckett and Durham to name but a few. But what sets Brunel apart from the crowd is that is entirely operated, funded and designed to work with a professional rugby club.

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In addition to the university’s already impressive facilities, its partnership with Ealing Trailfinders has seen the club commit to building the university a new 4G rugby pitch, a gym which will be larger and more well-equipped than any boasted by a Premiership club and an indoor performance centre.

These new facilities, combined with the university’s already considerable assets such as the indoor athletics centre, spas, saunas and gyms which have produced many household names in athletics and rugby, Ealing believe scholars at Brunel will have access to the finest sporting facilities.

The programme is also staffed by Ealing with a number of the club’s senior coaches, such as Steve Neville, Andy Holloway and Paddy Gill, taking on key academy coaching roles and they will be joined by incoming academy head coach Glen Townson and academy transition coach James Brooks next season.

Academy manager Ty Sterry and Brunel head of rugby Gareth Rise both oversee the programme and the club also provides full-time strength and conditioning coaches, physios and video analysts, making it arguably the most well-staffed programme in the country. Trailfinders director of rugby Ben Ward even takes some sessions with the academy.

Beyond that, the club also provides players with all their nutritional supplements, comprehensive medical insurance that allows for injuries to be treated immediately and with the highest care, and opportunities for impressive players to join the senior training sessions at Ealing Trailfinders.

Many of this year’s performance group have regularly trained with Ealing, in addition to going out on loan at clubs in National 1 and National 2 in order to further push themselves and develop within the senior game.

While the programme leans heavily on the model found in US college sports, of participants being scholar athletes and enjoying a professional-level rugby programme while they get their degree and ensure they have options for their post-rugby careers, scholars are expected to keep up with their academic commitments.

Efforts are made to fit their university schedule around their rugby duties, but attendance and satisfactory grades are important and this is something where the Brunel programme differs from some of the similar programmes in the US sports systems.

The programme is designed to provide scholars with an array of exit routes from Brunel, with the university boasting a highly laudable employment rate – at £28k per annum or above – or further study percentage of 95 per cent just six months after graduation.

These range from the purely academic route of scholars taking up professional roles in their chosen academic careers and playing rugby at the amateur level or semi-professional level, to players emerging with full-time professional rugby contracts.

Of course, the desired exit route from Ealing’s perspective is for players to have developed sufficiently over their three- or four-year degree to earn a professional contract at the club.

Our desire ultimately is for the bulk of our senior recruitment each summer to come from our own academy rather than other sources. We also recognise the opportunity for a number of players on the programme to take up professional contracts at high-level clubs around the world upon graduation.

At the senior level at Ealing, our ambition is to be a Premiership rugby club as soon as possible and in order to do that and not only establish ourselves at that level in a way which can be sustainable for the long-term, we need a productive academy. That is why we are investing so much in our programme at Brunel.

By giving players a professional environment in which there are tests and challenges asked of them, without the need for a short-term return on investment that you see with players professionally contracted at 18 years of age, we believe we can get more out of the individuals on the programme than they would be able to achieve in any other environment.

This is the first full year of the programme and the results have been clear to see with the Brunel 1st XV having won every game in their league and a number of the freshmen having impressed on loan at clubs such as Henley, Blackheath, London Irish Wild Geese, Sutton and Epsom, and Camerbley.

Those players have taken their first steps this season into the men’s game and potential professional future within it. If you’re interested in joining them next season, you can request more information at academy@etprm.com.

Alex Shaw is Head of Recruitment at Ealing Trailfinders

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