Head of Academy Mark Hopley was delighted to see 12 of Northampton Saints’ brightest young prospects begin training with Bedford Blues last week.
Back in June 2020, the men in Black, Green and Gold announced a new strategic partnership with the Championship outfit, which would see the two clubs formally co-operate on a number of playing, coaching and training opportunities.
However, with the Coronavirus pandemic so far preventing the Blues from beginning their league campaign, opportunities for Saints Academy players to train and play have been limited.
Thursday marked the first time that 12 Northampton starlets were able to safely train with the Blues group, and with the opening Championship conference clashes due at the beginning of March, Hopley is thrilled the relationship with Bedford is starting to bear fruit.
“When we initially announced the partnership, we were really excited to get it up and running, but obviously the world is not that straightforward at the moment,” he said.
“It has been frustrating, while ultimately understandable, that the Championship keeps getting pushed back – but hopefully now we have a start date all will be well.
“We’ve got a bunch of young lads that are really enthusiastic and eager to play. They can’t wait to get going and get the opportunity to turn out at Bedford.”Mark Hopley, Head of Academy
“I really believe that you have to play to develop. You can train as much as you can, but there’s no way of implementing that learning without a game scenario to put it into. We’re really eager for our young players to go in there, gain experience, make mistakes, plan, learn and review – because that is the best way for them to learn.
“We’ve now got a large group of boys that have had that development opportunity taken away from them as a direct result of the pandemic for nearly a year now.
“So, while we can dig into the detail of what they need to work on to get better in training at Franklin’s Gardens, from my point of view I just want them to go to Bedford and enjoy themselves, play the game that they love, and a greater level of development will come off the back of that.”
Lewis Bean, Reuben Bird-Tulloch, Callum Burns, Karl Garside, Ethan Grayson, Dani Long-Martinez, Ollie Newman, Ryan Olowofela, Ed Prowse, JJ Tonks, Connor Tupai, and Tui Uru all trained with the Blues this week.
Hopley added: “There has been a lot of work done to get us to this point, and like everything else the picture is ever-changing when it comes to the restrictions within the elite rugby environment.
“It has been very challenging, but we have a brilliant group of medics at both clubs who have put in a structure which makes it as safe as possible for everyone involved.
“It’s nowhere near as straightforward as it might have been before the pandemic to send a group of lads into another club to train – there are a lot of things that need to be considered.
“We are being extremely careful given the risk of cross contamination between groups; once our players undergo a test and then go to train at Bedford, they have to remain separated from the Saints group and environment until they have tested negative again.”
Hopley, who has been Saints’ Head of Academy at Franklin’s Gardens since 2019, is looking forward to seeing his charges improve within a different environment at Goldington Road.
The 36-year-old coach expects there to be an adjustment period but hopes Saints’ players can take the bull by the horns and help to inspire success for the Blues on the pitch.
“There will a bedding in period – they’ve not even had a session at Bedford yet – but that growth will happen naturally over time,” said Hopley.
“If we’ve got, for example, a lineout caller that goes down there regularly, the only way they are going to get better is to take ownership of that element and implement what they’ve learnt.
“A huge advantage of this too for their development is the opportunity to go and learn to do things a slightly different way. There are some brilliant coaches at Bedford in Mike Rayer, Alex Rae and Paul Larkin, and they won’t play exactly the same way that we do here, but that’s also important experience for our players going into that environment.
“I want to thank Mike and [Bedford Chairman] Geoff Irvine for their efforts to get us to this point, and we’re looking forward to working even more closely together in future.”