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The next Dombrandt? Talents taking the road less travelled

By Alex Shaw
Could some of these players follow Alex Dombrandt into the Premiership and England squad? (Getty Images)

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Since the advent of professionalism in English rugby, the Gallagher Premiership clubs have gradually moved away from using universities and local amateur clubs as a source of players, instead focusing their efforts on the internal academy pathway.


The increased investment in those academies has profited the clubs and English rugby, with high-end talents given the coaching and preparation they need to have a successful professional career. That said, there are always good players who slip through the cracks, with late developers in particular penalised by this approach.

Thankfully, the university pathway has begun to come back into vogue, with the BUCS Super Rugby competition developing into a fine proving ground for young players who just miss that cut when they leave school. The pathway’s most recent success story is Alex Dombrandt, with the Harlequin having had a stellar 2018/19 season following his arrival from Cardiff Met.

His rise has been an inspiring one and one that has players believing that they can go down the university route and, if they apply themselves, still forge a professional rugby career. We’ve taken a look at 10 of the top talents in English rugby from this past season who missed out on professional contracts, but who are looking to prosper on the road less travelled.

Jack Bertinet

The tightead had a tough situation at Bath, where Wales U18 Archie Griffin was at the front of the queue for a Premiership academy contract and teams very rarely take two players at the same position in one year. Griffin was arguably the more destructive scrummager at U18 level, although Bertinet has a frame that should allow him to carry more weight as a senior player and continue to remain as mobile and influential in the loose as he currently is.

Bertinet will be heading to Loughborough University this year, with few places better to hone a potential professional sporting career. Both Leicester Tigers and Saracens have made use of Loughborough players and/or facilitated their players combining their professional careers with studies at the university in the past, so it’ll be interesting to see if either club looks at Bertinet over the next few years.


Arinze Okemuo

A long lock from Worcester Warriors U18s, Okeumo was limited to just two games for Worcester due to injury and unfortunately didn’t have the time to make the impression he would have liked at the West Midlands club. He is built in the mould of the modern second row, with mobility and vertical ability prized over too much ballast in the scrum, although he will likely fill out further in the coming years.

He is off to Newcastle University to study medicine, with the institute from the north-east narrowly missing out on qualification for Super Rugby this past season. If he can help propel them back towards that playoff to make it into Super Rugby in 2019/20, there’s a good chance that Newcastle Falcons could take a look at the lock, especially with the club having had so much turnover at the position this summer.

Theo Manihera


One of Sedbergh’s impressive 2018/19 group, Manihera missed out on professional terms at Newcastle, something which was possibly influenced by the contracting in 2018 and rise of Josh Hodge during this past season. A skilful and playmaking full-back, Manihera shares a number of traits with Hodge and won’t be the only player from that gifted Sedbergh back line taking an alternative to the Premiership academy route after school.

Manihera is considering offers from both Loughborough and Nottingham Trent, with the former in Super Rugby for the coming season, whilst Nottingham Trent were relegated this past season, with Swansea taking their place. Either way, the full-back will have a good platform to showcase his talents over the coming years, whether that is trying to crack the Loughborough 1st XV or helping Nottingham Trent get back to the top tier.

Charles Rylands

The flanker, once of Northampton Saints U18s, unfortunately didn’t get a contract from Chris Boyd, with the East Midlands club only opting to hand out five professional contracts this summer. An aggressive and technically refined tackler, not to mention being strong over the ball at the contact area, Rylands ticks a lot of the same boxes as current Saints standout Lewis Ludlam.

His game, like that of former Northampton U18 Fraser Dingwall, may well look better in the senior ranks, where that defensive technique and decision-making is highly prized. Rylands is already in preseason training with Cardiff Met, the same Super Rugby university that helped develop Dombrandt, as well as new Quins signing Luke Northmore.

Harry Dugmore

A former England U18 international, Dugmore was one of the more surprising names not to be given a Premiership academy contract this season. The back rower had impressed on the England U18 tour of South Africa last year, although he didn’t quite kick on enough in 2018/19 to grab a coveted contract at Quins, where only four players were given professional terms this summer.

Dugmore will make the most of Ealing Trailfinder’s new academy programme run in conjunction Brunel University and he is not alone in taking that path. With the programme prioritising game time as a means of development, not only will Dugmore play for Brunel this coming season, he will likely be loaned out to a club in National 1 or National 2 South, where playing opportunities should come for him.

Aaron Bello

Let go by Wasps after he graduated from the U16s, Bello is a wing that ticks all the physical boxes. He has the speed and power to live with the demands of the professional game and excel in the aerial contest that is so influential in rugby these days. A product of RGS High Wycombe, he follows in the footsteps of plenty of very successful professional players, not least so current Buffalo Bill Christian Wade.

Bello will join Bertinet at Loughborough this coming season and just like the former Bath U18 tighthead, he will have an opportunity to showcase his talents to the 12 Premiership clubs, not least so Leicester and Saracens. He has also been doing some preseason training with Ealing’s academy, so don’t be surprised if the Championship club also have him on their radar.

Jack Metcalf

Given the uncertainty that surrounds Yorkshire Carnegie currently, Metcalf, a former standout for their U18s, is in an unenviable position. Whether an opportunity with the club presents itself or he ends up taking his talents to a Super Rugby university – or potentially both – there is no doubt that whoever lands the centre is getting a player with plenty of talent.

An inside centre, Metcalf shone alongside the likes of Dan Lancaster and Joe Carpenter for Yorkshire U18s last season, bringing a mix of precise passing, incisive carrying and a dangerous kicking game to the second receiver spot. He brings the same style of play as Ollie Devoto and he’s certainly one to keep an eye on as he develops technically and physically at the next level.

Joe Knight

Knight, a flanker formerly of London Irish U18s, has already had a taste of international U20 rugby, having represented Hong Kong at the World Rugby U20 Trophy recently. He impressed at the tournament and was unlucky to miss out on a contract at Irish, who have taken in four back rowers over the past two seasons from their U18s and may have had to prioritise other positions.

The back rower is another heading to Brunel as part of the affiliate programme the university has with Ealing and should form a partnership with Dugmore that has a lot of potential. Knight has another year of U20 eligibility to serve, too, so expect to see him feature for Hong Kong again where, if they again qualify for the U20 Trophy, he could be testing himself against Scotland U20s.

Will Panday

Panday was one of the stars of last season’s Sedbergh squad, with the school from Cumbria having an extremely successful year. Panday impressed alongside Tom Curtis and Will Haydon-Wood, who have gone on to receive Premiership academy contracts from Sale Sharks and Newcastle respectively. Falcons themselves have contracted Hodge, Morgan Passman and Chidera Obonna over the last 12 months, so they aren’t in short supply of outside centres and/or back three players.

Panday joined Knight in the Hong Kong U20 side at the World Rugby U20 Trophy earlier this year and like his teammate has another season of eligibility with the side. He will also join Knight at Ealing and Brunel next season, having taken up the option of joining the club’s fledgling academy. Reon Joseph, a player let go by London Irish a few years ago, has flourished on the wing for Ealing and on loan, even drawing Premiership interest, and Panday will be hoping to replicate that in the coming years.

Harrison Obatoyinbo

The younger brother of Saracens senior academy wing Elliott Obatoyinbo, Harrison followed in his brother’s footsteps by going to Harrow and playing for Saracens U18s, although unfortunately a professional contract wasn’t in the offing. Having impressed at school and Premiership academy levels with footwork and acceleration that is reminiscent of his brother, not to mention starring at the Rosslyn Park 7s, Obatoyinbo was a player that should have garnered Premiership interest.

He has secured himself a bright future, though, as he is yet another player to join up with Ealing and Brunel, where securing him games at the senior level will be a priority for the club’s academy staff. A back three player with a slighter build, exposure to the senior game will be vital for Obatoyinbo’s development, as he learns how his speed and ability to evade translates to the senior game. If they do, he is a future Premiership player.

Watch: RugbyPass exclusive – ‘The Academy’ – Part One

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