NORTHUMBRIA University have kicked off this season with a new look, boasting a fresh coaching team and minus their Saturday side after last season’s decision to pull out of the leagues.
Tomorrow afternoon they take on city rivals Newcastle University in the second week of the BUCS Northern Premier season, determined to return to the top of the student game after lifting the national title twice in the past two decades.
Simon Culley is the man who hopes to take them there, now working as head of rugby after spending last year as development manager.
Culley, who presides over three men’s teams, a women’s side and an intra-mural competition, said: “Last season was more managing the programme without any hands-on involvement with the players, whereas now I am head coach of the men’s and women’s first teams as well as having overall charge of the rugby programme.”
The revised role offers hands-on involvement in team affairs, although this season that will not include a place in the weekend leagues after the decision to remove their struggling side from the RFU pyramid.
“It has been a complete rebuild of rugby programme without the Saturday league team,” added Culley, who worked for six years as an RFU development officer in Wiltshire before heading north.
“If you want to be properly competitive at the top level of university rugby then you have to focus your entire efforts on that, or if you want to go up the leagues you have to concentrate primarily on that instead.
“With having both a team in the Saturday leagues and a student team playing on a Wednesday we weren’t achieving either.
“With that in mind we have re-focused the programme, and decided to concentrate on Wednesdays and not Saturdays. If we are going to do something we want to do it properly, and to compete on the highest level of student rugby without the distraction of running a weekend side.”
Culley has good people around him with plenty of local know-how, not least in Northern’s Dave Guthrie, a long-time back-rower with Blaydon and Northumberland’s county side in his playing days.
Novos’ Magnus Leask is also part of the set-up as is student Nicky Watt, while the women’s team enjoys coaching input from Kieran Dannatt and the RFUW’s Rob Thompson.
Rebuilding on the field as well as off it, the head of rugby said: “It is a huge player turnover from last season, but the good thing is we have a young first-team now who will be together for a while.
“It has been a combination of holding open trials on the one hand and on the other targeting guys and actively recruiting them.
“We naturally get very good players coming here to study in any case, and also I have brought up two players I know from the south. We have had several players who previously did not play for the university coming back to play for us and we have very good young freshers in plus two masters students.
“In the long-term it is more about advertising the fact we run a good rugby programme here, make people aware of what we offer and then as guys come through the system that will be a great example of what we do and why people should come to Northumbria.” His team beaten 29-7 last week by a Durham side undefeated in league action for the past two seasons, Culley added: “We have a pretty good all-round team, although because so many of them are new they are not yet used to playing with each other.
“We gave Durham a good game last Wednesday at Kingston Park, and even though they pulled away at the end it was a decent contest and there were some positives to take out of it.
“Durham are a very good side who have lost just once in almost three years, so you have to keep it in perspective.
“We have a lot of try-scoring potential, a good threat out wide and big ball-carriers in the pack, so we are looking forward to what we hope will be a good season.”
The students travel the short distance to Heaton’s Cochrane Park tomorrow (2pm) for their first derby of the season against Newcastle.
Culey said: “The way the fixtures have fallen has seen us take on a top side in Durham first off and then our big city rivals Newcastle the week after, so we have hardly been eased into it!
“It will be a big horrible game as you would usually expect, and these derbies are always close-fought.
“Newcastle will be strong. They have a very good coach in Tom Wilkinson and it will be tough.
“If we can be clinical in taking our chances we have a very good chance of winning it.”