It's academic for Cambridge University in Varsity Match development plan
Third year of academy for the Light Blues
The end of the current season may be nigh for Cambridge University RUFC, but it does not mean that the rugby balls will be packed away until the next Michaelmas Term.
It has been a victorious year for the Light Blues, with both the men’s and women’s teams winning their respective Varsity Matches, and the women are also on the verge of claiming the British Universities & Colleges Sport, Midlands 1A Division title, having won seven matches out of seven.
But there is no sign that they are prepared to rest on their laurels, and away from the fanfare and more public eye, the foundations for the next academic year are already being put in place.
Chris Bell, Stephen Leonard, Matt Watson, Henry King, Andy Burnett and Mike Phillips all had crucial roles in the 20-10 win over Oxford at Twickenham in December, and they all have something in common – they have been part of Cambridge University’s academy.
For the past two years, under the watchful eye of Jack Heald, more than 30 players have graduated from the scheme which has been run to take the best young talent at the university and prepare them for the Blues.
Players receive strength and conditioning advice from James Owen, and one-to-one coaching with academy manager Heald, aimed at developing their overall game and skill set.
“It is to increase contact time and quality of coaching,” said Heald. “These lads are all good enough to play Blues rugby, it’s just giving them enough additional time; it’s to make sure, if needed and when they are physically ready, they can do it.
“It’s making sure we have lads who are 18 to 21 giving them quality coaching so when we put them into a Blues shirt they are able to step up.
“The end focus is to get them a winning Blue; it’s a pathway.
“During the off season we will ask them to go training with their local National League rugby clubs. It’s making sure they are focusing on the gym and rugby stuff as well, as the physical contact time we have with them here is relatively small.”
And for the first time this year, two members of the women’s team will also be part of the 12-strong academy.
Scrum-half Kate Marks and No 8 Emily Pratt, who both played in the 24-0 triumph over the Dark Blues, will be given the chance to develop their game.
Pratt, who is studying natural sciences at Emmanuel College, says that both she and Marks were approached by Cambridge University RFU college rugby development officer John Naylor to be a part of the academy.
“It’s quite a nice feeling that you have been selected to be the first people to try it out for the girls,” said the 21-year-old.
“It’s quite good because I play No 8 and Kate plays No 9, so we’ve got quite different roles on the pitch, and we need quite different training plans.
“The whole idea of the academy is to be quite specific to you, and it’s a nice opportunity to have.
“The aim is to work over the summer term, and then try to get us into local clubs over the summer with a view to hitting the ground running coming back in October towards Varsity.
“It’s a lot of skills-based things and it was discussed with me and Kate about fitness things and maybe getting a fitness plan to suit our positions more.
“At the minute, we are given the same fitness plans as everyone else, but the demands of our positions are quite different so Jack is going to look at giving us plans that would suit our positions more.
“It will be interesting to have because I have never had anything specific for being a back row, it’s always been that this is what the whole team needs to work on.”
Rowan Beckett will be part of Cambridge University RUFC’s academy for the third summer in a row, and is effusive about the impact it has had.
The 21-year-old medical student at Peterhouse was in the inaugural group to work with academy manager Jack Heald, and it has reaped its rewards.
In his first year at university, Beckett was part of the second team, but made the step up to get his first team in his second year and only narrowly missed out on a Blue in his third year.
“I was involved in it again last year, which got me to play every Blues game this year which was a big goal for me, then just missed out on the Varsity Match,” said Beckett.
“It was disappointing but it was amazing to be there on the day, involved as travelling reserve, and I got a call from Jack asking if I wanted to be involved in it again.
“It’s helped me as a player and I know no end I have improved year on year and Jack is such a good skills coach. The forwards here have got some of the best hands you will see, in any club I’ve played in anyway. I think he is definitely responsible for that.
“It just gives you some great contacts, like strength and conditioning coach James Owen and he will give you a programme that will get you stronger.
“I’ve come on in leaps and bounds since my first year, and I think it’s only going to get better this year.
“I hope to fulfil my goals of playing in the Varsity Match next [academic] year, and I think I’m only going to improve as much as I have if I keep getting involved in the academy stuff.”
Joining Beckett and Pratt in the academy this year are Marks, James Elms, Owen Perks, Jordan Eriksen, Rowan Beckett, Charlie MacCallum, Will Saunter, Omar Hatteea, James Hargreaves, Ollie Smart and Max Antcliffe.