Newcastle University are sowing the seeds for future success, but director of rugby Tom Wilkinson admits this season is all about maintaining Premier North status.
Tomorrow afternoon they travel to a Durham University side who have won the league title for the past three seasons, as well as being the reigning national BUCS Cup champions following a third successive Twickenham final.
The inherently cyclical nature of student rugby and predatory leanings from local clubs has made Newcastle’s hill steeper, Wilkinson saying: “We have had a really good fresher intake this year and, of the 44 players who featured in our last round of first and second-team matches, 20 of them were first-years.
“We are in a good position going forward, and in two or three years’ time we should be pretty strong, providing we keep hold of them all and don’t get pillaged again by the local clubs.”
Currently fifth in the seven-team league, he added: “At the moment we are trying to consolidate, making sure we stay in the Premier Division.
“We started well, beating Loughborough away and winning against our traditional rivals, Northumbria. Since then we have struggled through injuries and lost our last four games before we broke up for Christmas.”
Putting his side’s positive start down to a short but intense pre-season which included three training sessions per day, recruitment remains a major challenge.
“We targeted six players, and we were fortunate in that five of them got the grades they needed to be accepted on to their courses,” said the director of rugby.
“Outside of that we got lucky to some extent with the quality of freshers who came to us, but we are also three years into my tenure as director of rugby and we have built up some good relationships with a number of schools around the country.
“People like Brighton College and Sedbergh are in active contact about sending some of their better players here, but the lads have still got to get their grades and it is not like American college sport.
“We are always going to be at a disadvantage to some extent against some of the old polytechnics, in that we cannot give a reduced grade offer. So if our course entry requirement is two As and a B, the student has to hit that target.
“There is no leeway from the university on that, and a lot of the medical and law courses we run mean you have to be a real high-achiever academically to be taken on.”
Putting plans in place to strengthen in the long run, Wilkinson added: “If we have our best 15-18 available we can be a match for anybody. Durham, the national champions, only beat us in the last minute when we played them, and we had two players in the sin-bin. We just don’t have the depth when we get a spate of injuries, but hopefully in the next two academic years we will be starting a sports course at the university. That will make a massive difference to us in terms of bringing the best players here.
“We are lucky in terms of the lads we get largely through public schools, but we miss out on a lot of the high-end athletes because they want to enrol on sports courses, which we don’t yet have here.”
Highlighting the strength of his side as a pacy back-line, the form of England Under-19s lock Will Witty has helped add grunt to the forward pack of a team not unaccustomed to seeing their best talent beingpilfered.
“The number one contributiong factor to us not being as successful as we could be is local clubs coming and taking our players,” said Wilkinson. “Blaydon and Tynedale are the main culprits, and I am not saying they are doing anything wrong. They are just looking after their own end, which I can understand them doing, but it is incredibly frustrating for us and means we can often be without our best lads.
“Clubs see us as a place where they can come and take players from, rather than leaving them in a good development environment for three years and taking them at the end of that programme.
“We encourage the lads to play during their breaks, but during our season they are not allowed to play out. If you play two games inside a week you begin to break down, and it has affected us a lot.
“Last season Ben Morris and Andy Davies were both Newcastle University students but didn’t play for us, because they were at Blaydon. The year before Sam Shires and Harry Peck were in the same scenario at Tynedale.
“Harry Bate at the moment is a Newcastle student who came in as a fresher, and we did a massive amount of work with him. Blaydon have come in this year and nicked him, but that is the environment we are in and these things are going to happen.”
More immediately focused on tomorrow’s trip to Durham, he said: “They are top of the table, and still the side to beat.
“They have lost in the league for the first time in three years, though, and are not the force they were. That said, they are still a very strong student rugby team, and they work you from side to side until you run out of numbers.
“Their recruitment policy is sound, they run a sports course and they get good scholarships. They are able to access the best players, and fair play to them because I would do exactly the same if I could.
“Northumbria is still our biggest game, and it is the one the boys talk about more than anything else.”