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Kick ahead for young rugby elite

English rugby is being given a pound;600,000 boost to prepare a new generation and avenge the memory of Saturday's defeat in the World Cup. The cash from the Learning and Skills Council will pay for elite apprenticeships at Premiership clubs, where students will learn from international stars.

After a successful pilot project with Filton College and Bristol Rugby Club, 12 teams across the country have between them recruited 200 apprentices aged between 16 and 18.

Each will continue to study academic subjects at either a school sixth form or a college while training 15 hours a week with professional facilities and expertise, picking up an NVQ in advanced sporting excellence along the way.

The Rugby Football Union sees the apprenticeships as complementing the traditional route of developing players through public schools. But with fierce competition for scarce places in the top teams, the apprentices will have all the advantages they could wish for.

Even before the first cohort has finished the course, one in four of the under-18 England squad that recently competed in Australia were apprentices.

London Wasps, the club of England star Lawrence Dallaglio, has 24 teenagers in training on the scheme. Chris Lloyd, the club's academy apprenticeship manager, said: "Traditionally the hotbed of rugby development in this country has been the English public school system. But the pressure there is that schools are judged on their exam results, and it makes it harder for them to spend time preparing people for sport. That chance is going, and not everybody can afford to go to these schools."

Academic work is not neglected. The Wasps trainees spend their mornings at Twyford Church of England High School in Acton, west London, before hitting the club's gym, training field or the tactics chalkboard and video room.

"A lot of first-team players have other business interests, professional interests," said Mr Lloyd. "So it's the same for the apprentices, having to balance their academic stuff as well.

"We treat education not as a fall-back but as something that is essential. Even if they are playing for England for ten years, they are not going to earn enough money to retire on in this sport."

One star scrum-half was dropped from the trainees' team because he had neglected his academic work: an effective punishment.

"He hated us for it, but his parents loved us," Mr Lloyd said.

Trainees say one of the best things about the scheme is the chance to spend time with professionals at the top of their game.

Aidan Bruynseels, the 18-year-old captain of the trainees' team, is taking A-level studies in economics, history and sociology. "It's the chance to see what players like Dallaglio are doing, and to ask their advice," he said. "They're very friendly: the thing that stuck in my mind was them saying at the beginning that the club was like a family."

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