Rugby has traditionally been seen as the preserve of public schools, but Leicester Tigers has formed a unique partnership with Brooksby Melton College to help dispel this myth – and it’s already reaping rewards.
Tom Harrison is two coaches in one; he leads up the Brooksby rugby programme alongside Tigers community coach Steven Baker while also playing his part in producing the next generation of Tigers as forwards coach of the club's academy.
He spoke to LeicesterTigers.com about his roles, the club’s college link and how the job is about shaping young players on and off the field.
Brooksby Melton College is Tigers’ partner for the Academic and Sporting Excellence (AASE) League, which sees 14 sides from across the UK – each paired with a professional club – pitted against one another in a hotly-contested development tournament.
“The AASE is a selective programme which we can use to signpost academy players and aspiring young players,” Harrison says. “Underneath that sits our development programme, which is a really good rugby offer.
“Those guys get 10 hours a week of rugby, where the AASE guys get around 12 hours a week alongside their studies.”
Young players complete an extended diploma or BTEC Level 3 in a subject of their choice – usually sport or sport science though some follow courses as diverse as agriculture and countryside management – while developing their rugby skills alongside Tigers coaches.
“We completely run the rugby side,” Harrison adds.
“A typical week can be pretty varied. There’s a real mix of academics and rugby, gym sessions, reviews and stuff like that, and then we play our fixtures against similar colleges each Wednesday.”
The top crop have gone from strength to strength, with Brooksby’s AASE squad sharing 14 players with the successful Tigers Academy and recording their best-ever finish in the competition this season.
A win over nine-time AASE League winners Hartpury College in December’s play-off rounds secured third overall in the national league.
The development programme has tasted success, too, with the wider squad retaining their County Cup title earlier this month.
For Harrison, the success is a positive sign – but the all-round progress of players is just as important.
He says: “We’re never ‘Win at all costs’ because we’ve seen how that can affect guys’ effort or willingness to make mistakes. But we’ll definitely beat the drum of ‘Get better or get beaten’.
“A lot of environments don’t do that.
“We finished third overall in the AASE League, which is the best we’ve done. When we started three years ago it was eighth place, then seventh place, and now third place, but the calibre of student is still growing.
“On the programme we’ve had George Martin, who’s been with England Under-20s, and in terms of age-grade internationals we’ve seen seven Tier 1 or Tier 2; guys playing over in Ukraine, training with the Italy squad, and we’ve had our first student from France come over, so we’re slowly branching out.
“The big thing about the programme is using sport to drive education. We call it ‘transitioning to a high level of performance’, and that’s our big motto.
"We talk about rugby performance and physical performance within that, but there’s also academic performance for those wishing to go on to higher education, and the life skills.
“Plus we’ve got 16-year-olds living away from home for the first time – about 40 living on site – so we’ll also try to educate them in cooking, social skills and how they can integrate into a group.”
While there may be stereotypes associated with ‘posh’ rugby players, at the other end of the scale Harrison explains there is a pre-conceived idea of BTEC study; something else the partnership seeks to remove.
“As the reputation [of the programme] grows, we’ve found different players have been interested in what we’re doing,” he adds.
“We can speak about the stereotypes of completing a BTEC, yet we’ve had students go on to Durham University and the University of Bath. That success makes my job harder, gives me some headaches, but they’re good headaches to have.
“If I didn’t enjoy seeing the guys get better, I wouldn’t put so much time into seeing them grow. They’re a great set of guys who just want to get better.”
And it’s a route with which former front-rower Harrison is all too familiar.
After completing a Level 3 Extended BTEC of his own as a young player, he studied coaching at Hartpury University – living next door to future Tigers player Jonny May – before going on to play professional rugby in France and in the English Championship.
“I had some really good opportunities as a player,” he recalls. “I played for England Counties, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to play for the Barbarians when they visited Plymouth, but I wouldn’t say I’m an ex-professional who’s bowed out into coaching.
“I’m first and foremost a coach with a mindset of ‘how can I get better?’. Coaching quickly became more of a career goal than the playing ever was.
“The goals are still the same, about how good you can get, and I’m now on that journey as a coach. That’s what drives me.
“My role, ultimately, is to help produce the best players for the Leicester Tigers first team.
“Brooksby is a fantastic vehicle to do that.”
Brooksby Melton College are currently recruiting to the successful rugby programme run in partnership with the Tigers.
If you are looking for the best opportunity to transition on to a higher level of performance and achieve academic and sporting excellence at sixth form level, then email [email protected] for more information on college choices.
You can find out more about the rugby and education provision at BMC using the link below.