Future of rugby passes to colleges
Half of the England rugby team could be former further education students within a few years under a new partnership with West Country clubs.
The best 16 to 18-year-old players will be encouraged to take advanced apprenticeships in sporting excellence, which incorporate dedicated practice in a student's chosen sport, qualifications including A-levels or national diploma and key skills including information technology and communication.
The partnership is focused on rugby union - the version of the game more commmonly associated with the playing fields of public schools than further education.
In soccer, the advanced apprenticeship is well established and now in its second year, with more than 300 young players involved.
David Shaw, the Rugby Football Union's director of regional academy operations, hopes to bring the initiative into the union's regional rugby "academies", where elite young players train with an eye to possible careers in the sport.
He hopes within months the scheme will embrace the academies at each of the 12 clubs in the Guinness Premiership plus one at Harlequins, relegated from the Premiership in May, and the Cornish academy, based in Truro.
He expects half of future academy players to take the college route geared to their needs, rather than the traditional path of combining their rugby with attending selective or private schools.
That means former FE students are likely soon to form a sizeable contingent in the England squad.
Mr Shaw said: "It takes three hours a day of dedicated practice for 10 years to make a top player, and that has to be fitted alongside all the other demands of life. It isn't too hard to find that time at 19-plus, but it is a real problem at 16 to 18.
"The FE system offers us that flexibility, along with an immense range of options and courses at different levels, while the sector is very aggressive in recruitment and seeking out funding for facilities."
The initiative recognises the realities rugby union has had to face since it went professional in 1995, transforming players from club members with other careers into full-time employees.
As with soccer, the scheme has to provide for the majority of young players who will not make it as full-time professionals and prepare those who do make it for a second career after retirement.
Max Breet, a Bristol Academy player, started his rugby apprenticeship last month at Filton College in Bristol, turning down a place at a local public school, Clifton College.
He said: "I had the grades to go into the sixth form, but I don't think I'd have developed as a player. Here, I can take my A levels and at the same time there are top-class rugby facilities. In the past, I had to do a lot of travelling, but everything here is on one site.
"I want to be a professional player, but this gives me something to fall back on if I don't make it."
Filton's rugby players are based at its new pound;17.5 million West of England Institute of Specialist Education campus, opened last month.
This has specialist facilities for around 1,000 students, equally divided between sport, art and performing art.
The college's principal, Kevin Hamblin, said: "It is unusual for such a large investment to be devoted to vocational areas, but the sector has to respond to the vocational agenda at 14 to 19.
"We can now offer students both the best possible environment for practising their sport or art and a choice of 250 courses."
While Mr Hamblin will be delighted when he can point to a Twickenham hero as an ex-student, he says: "They'll always be the exception. We'll be just as proud of somebody who becomes a good builder or engineer while playing decent amateur rugby."