Michael Prestage on how Northampton rugby club is converting raw talent into qualified sportsmen
Northampton Rugby Club has established an "academy" unique to the sport that is designed to develop home-grown talent and provide education and pastoral care.
It has been accredited to offer a national vocational qualification in sport and recreation, and while the first to enrol are the club's own apprentices local schools and colleges will soon be taking advantage.
The professional era of rugby union was ushered in three years ago and Northampton Saints leads the way in education and community links with its three-year Modern Apprenticeship scheme.
Already the sports' governing body, the Rugby Football Union, is considering a Lottery bid to establish national youth academies and is considering the Saints initiative as a model.
Former British Lions and Scotland coach Ian McGeechan, now coaching director at Northampton, said: "If we can cater for everybody across the spectrum from primary school children to apprentices, then we have created a true rugby academy."
He added that the apprentice scheme did not force 12 to 21-year-olds into a rugby cul-de-sac, but also equipped them with life skills and an education programme that would serve them outside the game.
The former teacher added: "We want to create an environment that is supportive and those taking part enjoy at whatever level. The whole thing is exciting for us because we have seen it evolve and it will continue to develop." The building housing the academy was bought by club owner Keith Barwell for those apprentices living too far away to commute.
Northampton has learned from leading soccer clubs such as Manchester United who long ago realised the value of home-grown talent. Not least in the big saving on transfer fees.
Brett Taylor, who developed the academy model and produced the schools' education packs that go with it, said: "The whole structure is aimed to help the overall development of youth rugby in the area with the apprentice team guiding and developing young, home-grown talent."
Just as international soccer players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham came through the junior ranks at Old Trafford the Saints hope their nine apprentices will have the same success in their chosen sport.
The apprentices are top of a pyramid that begins with links to primary schools to encourage youngsters to take up the game and includes masterclasses taken by the club's coaches and players across the East Midlands as well as summer coaching camps.
Mr Taylor added: "From the outset players are taught to understand why they do basic core skills and relate them to game situations. The spine of the coaching therefore is the same for 11-year-olds as it is for the Saints professional squad."
The apprentices undertake coaching, referee and club athletic awards as well as learning first aid. There is the opportunity to take the NVQ in sport and recreation to level 4 and if they wish they can go on to take a degree.
Through the club's links with local colleges and schools it is hoped students studying for the NVQ in sport and recreation will be able to take part of the course at the Saints' ground so that they can see how a professional sports organisation operates.
Equally apprentices who wish to take courses other than sport and recreation can do so at local colleges in between their rugby training programme.