EFFORTS to strengthen Scotland’s professional rugby base have taken on a new lease of life at Telford College with former internationalists Chris Paterson and Gregor Townsend backing a former team-mate’s drive to blend further education with rugby.
The Scotland ‘A’ scrum-half Robert Chrystie, who played for Hawick, the Borders and Bath in a professional career that spanned a decade, now leads the Rugby Performance Course at the Edinburgh college that aims to ensure talented teenagers coming through Scottish rugby but who do not win a pro contract can continue to develop and push their claims.
The Scottish game is littered with stories of talented teenagers who were passed over at the age of 18 or 19 for various reasons, largely the lack of space in just two professional squads, but who many believed had the ability to become internationalists. Alex Dunbar, the Glasgow centre, is currently on the Scotland tour after a late call-up, yet only three months ago he was on the fringes of being dropped from the pro game by the Warriors as they struggled to keep within their budget.
His team-mate Stuart Hogg made his Test debut in the recent RBS Six Nations Championship, at just 19, and with the Borders pro team scrapped by the SRU to save money, the Hawick youngster was picked up by a similar course to that at Telford, being run by Borders College. Hogg frequently returns to Borders College to champion that course as having played a key role in bridging the gap between school and a pro career, and ultimately helping him to secure a contract at Glasgow.
“We have had a similar story at Telford with Dougie Fife,” explained Chrystie. “He is clearly a talented rugby player but he wasn’t picked up initially. After a year with us after school, which kept him working on his skills and kept his enthusiasm for the game, he got a place with the Edinburgh academy and he will be pushing hard for an Edinburgh jersey this coming season.”
What Telford currently operate is a one-year Level 3 BTEC Subsidiary Diploma in Sport. It is an example of the widening curriculum in further and higher education, but with growing demand for the courses at Telford, in order to be part of the course players have to have already played to district level in Scottish age-group rugby.
A full-time course, the students have a week of rugby sessions, mixed with strength and conditioning and speed training and studies, physiological and injury studies and massage, as well as a series of other academic classes.
The Telford course was launched five years ago by former Scotland ‘A’ player Murray Craig and Chrystie is now developing it with input from a range of coaches involved in the club and professional game, both on the rugby side and in physio and sports medicine. Townsend and Paterson are the latest to provide their backing with specialist sessions for students this year.
Townsend, the new Glasgow Warriors head coach, said: “I really enjoyed working the boys on their skills. I was keen to pass on my experience in professional rugby and I definitely made sure they all worked extremely hard in the session. The rugby performance course at Telford College is important as it helps individuals to reach their full potential within a physically demanding sport. I’m proud to be able to work with colleges to help develop the future talent of Scottish rugby.”
Alongside Fife, the Scotland under-20 and sevens cap, recent students include Ross McCann, who left to join a full-time academy in Italy, U20s caps Nick Fraser, Sam Atkins, Tom Steven and Colin Phillips, the latter also picked up by Edinburgh on an academy contract.
Chrystie, who has recently launched an Edinburgh colleges rugby festival, added: “One of the strengths of the course is also the fact that we ensure the boys play rugby every week with their own club. They learn and develop a lot at college, and the involvement of Gregor and Chris, the likes of Ben Fisher, Simon Cross and Gordon Henderson, and the many other players and coaches that come along, is huge, but to really develop well you also have to be playing the game regularly.
“That is something that has been hard for a lot of young lads taken into the SRU academy system in the past and while they’re improving that now, there are still only so many places in the academy and teams available to play for.
“For me, as a former pro, the great thing is seeing an avenue in Scotland to keeping talented players in the game and continuing their all-round education. I know how tough it is to make it to pro level in Scotland, and there were three pro teams when I started, so, like many guys, I went down south to play. Now we have just two teams and with the best will in the world it’s impossible to give all the young talents an opportunity to step up never mind compete with England where they have ten times the number of academies.
“It’s great Telford College also see the value and importance of this course in Scotland and the support from the college has been fantastic. We have good communication with the SRU and I hope we can really work together going forward to provide a valuable, extra resource for the game in Scotland.”