Last weekend’s 17-14 victory over Sale Sharks was a proud day for Northampton Saints, and not just because of the result.
Twelve of Saints’ starting XV were developed by the Club’s Academy, while every player was England-qualified, making it first time that such a line-up had won in the Gallagher Premiership since 2010.
It was the strongest indication yet of the benefits that come from placing an emphasis on bringing through homegrown players that have the Club’s ethos at heart.
We sat down with Saints’ Academy Manager, Mark Hopley, this week to find out how this approach has been such a success...
Q: Hoppers, how proud were you to see so many Saints Academy products in the team against Sale last week?
MH: It’s a fantastic achievement and it’s something that I think everyone at the Club is extremely proud of. It’s the result of ten years’ work that began when Dusty Hare came into the Academy. There’s obviously been a few changes since then, but that laid down the foundations for us to rebuild the Academy. Over the years, it’s gone from strength to strength and it’s amazing to see so many of the boys take to the pitch at the weekend. It’s not just the people at the Club who are responsible for that – those boys get a massive amount of support from their parents, their schools, which we work with, the clubs that we work with and the counties; East Midlands, Eastern Counties and Essex. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that people won’t necessarily see.
Q: Was the best part of it seeing those players forming a winning team?
MH: Boydy [Chris Boyd] alluded to it after the game that we’re in a high-performance sport, so ultimately we’ll get judged on what the result is on the Saturday. I’m just made up that we managed to hold on and get the victory. It’s amazing that so many of those boys have performed at that level and been successful through it. But we know that, in rugby, it’s about winning games. We want to produce players that are capable of representing this Club and going on to win further honours, such as playing for England.
Q: Just how much of a team effort is it to run the Academy?
MH: There are a lot of people in the local community that play a massive part in developing those players. If we look to where we start to identify players, we’ll begin the process at under-14 level, but if we look at the DPP [Developing Player Programme] sides, we’re relying on developing coaches and they do it on a voluntary basis. Without that process, and those people working some unsociable hours, none of this would be possible. We’ve got some really talented young coaches coming through our ranks as well – that’s another thing that we’re really keen to develop. No-one will see the amount of time and effort that the likes of Will Parkin, James Craig, Jake Sharp, Alex O’Dowd and Tim Grimsey put in. They work hard, day and night, to try and identify these boys.
Q: How does the Club identify players through their schools?
MH: There’s a nomination process for our DPP, but also it’s about us having good relationships with clubs and schools. It’s educating people about what sort of players we want and how to coach those players. The coach development remit that we’ve been down over the last couple of years has seen us put on sessions for our coaches to help them improve. I think we’ve got an open mind and we want to develop skilful players and encourage them to make mistakes because that’s how they get better.
Q: What gets developed when young players go through the DPP?
MH: For us, it’s about their core fundamentals. It’s about doing their basics really well at that age. Obviously, you want boys to develop their game, but no matter what level we’d coach them, it would be about their core skills. The ‘win’ for us is that, at 18, those boys will have developed really good skills and then we layer the ‘game understanding’ on top of that when they become full-time. However, their catch-pass, their tackle technique, clear-out technique and how to kick, all those basics need to be done really, really well.
Q: When do you know when a player is ready to have the finishing touches put on their game?
MH: It’s actually very difficult because players develop at different rates, so we will have seen some boys that we might not think are in line to get contracts to actually get one. George Furbank is a good example of that – he played no international age-grade stuff. He was a good footballer, and he came alive in the Academy League, got a contract and since then has gone on to be our starting fullback and win a few caps for England. But at under-17 level, did I think he’d get a contract? Probably not, but boys develop at different stages. Ollie Sleightholme and Lewis Ludlam were both released at under-15 level but brought back in at under-16s. Karl Wilkins was released after his under-18s season, but it’s great to see him re-joining the Club next season.
Q: How big a step up is it when players make it into the Senior Academy?
MH: We would probably hand out five or six contracts each year from our under-18 programme. Then the learning restarts. The emphasis up to under-18 is on education because that’s the only tangible thing those boys will definitely have at the end of their under-18 year. We then facilitate a rugby programme, on an outreach basis, to the players we’ve identified. Those boys would get strength and conditioning support, they’d get technical and tactical support, with coaches going out into the region to deliver to them. But when they come in, that’s where the development really starts to accelerate, and I believe that the model we have here puts us in a really good position. Our Senior Academy is fully integrated with our first-team squad – and if you train and play with better people, that accelerates learning.
Q: How much does the pathway to the first team motivate players in the Academy?
MH: You could have the best Academy in the world, but ultimately if you don’t have a Director of Rugby, Chief Executive and Board that want to develop young English players and give young players a chance, then it’s a waste of time. Your programme has to be aligned and the Club have to buy into that. We’re lucky that, previously with Jim Mallinder and now with Boydy, we’re really about giving those young players an opportunity to develop and that we are a ‘development club’, rather than a ‘recruitment club’. Hopefully, that is starting to show.