University Rugby: a pathway to professionalism

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In 2016 the ten best teams from the North and South Premier university divisions merged to create the top British university rugby division: BUCS Super Rugby.  It is now one of the most competitive leagues in the British Isles, and a fantastic breeding ground for highly talented rugby players.

It’s an outstanding product, that is only going to get better. Here is how university rugby is moulding to the professional sphere.

The Hartpury Model for Uni Rugby

Now recognised as a respectable pathway for late developing players, aspirational clubs are investing more in the university programme. In November 2018, Ealing Trailfinders announced an official partnership with Brunel University, with the open intention of pushing the Brunel 1st XV towards BUCS Super Rugby.

The partnership is a long term plan intended to provide an extended player pool for Ealing’s own aspirations to establish themselves as a Premiership club.

This model is inspired by Gloucester’s partnership with Hartpury College, which has been an overriding success for over a decade, with Hartpury graduates Jonny May, Henry Trinder and Dan Robson among many names to have broken into the first team at Gloucester.

Exeter Chiefs and Bath have similar relationships with their university sides. Essentially it is a symbiotic relationship with an exchange of coaching, equipment and financial support. It is no coincidence that Bath, Exeter and Hartpury topped the BUCS Super Rugby table last season. 

Other Models in BUCS Super Rugby

Not all BUCS Super Rugby teams have such open affiliations with professional sides. However, most universities do invest heavily in their Super Rugby teams, essentially treating them as professionals, by offering special bursaries/scholarships, full time coaching and medical staff and access to specialist high performance centres.

Cardiff Met and Hartpury are even able to field Saturday teams that compete in the second divisions of both Wales and England respectively, such is the depth and talent of their squads.

A Successful Alternative to Academies?

Studying at a university with a BUCS Super Rugby team is an attractive prospect for any young aspiring professional player. There are many players for whom University rugby offers a second chance. 

Universities with BUCS Super Rugby teams are an attractive prospect for aspiring professionals. Especially for those who narrowly miss out on a professional contract at 18. Many BUCS players retain links to Premiership clubs hoping to find themselves in professional contracts after graduation. In this way, the university programme offers a second chance.

Harlequin’s Alex Dombrandt is a prime example of this. Dombrandt broke onto the scene last season after a highly successful stint at Cardiff Met/RFC.

At Hartpury also, Sebastian Negri’s performances earned him a professional contract at Treviso and selection for the Italian national team.

With such high standards, there is the opportunity to study and prepare for a career outside of rugby, whilst training and playing near enough full time in a highly competitive league. Many academy graduates are underdeveloped at eighteen and not ready for a professional contract. However, the university pathway buys at least another three years of development within a semi-professional structure. 

Future Stars

BUCS Super Rugby is the pinnacle of university competition, featuring some of Britain’s hottest prospects on a weekly basis. With increasing focus and investment into university rugby, Dombrandt and Negri are most certainly the first of many who will emerge in the coming years.

Look out for Leeds Beckett’s Maro Itoje incarnate John Okafor, Durham’s hotstepper Nick Jonas or Cardiff Uni’s prolific try-scorer George Thomas. The potential for BUCS Super Rugby is enormous and with continuing investment, it can only get more competitive.

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