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The young and the bold make the grade

It will not have escaped anyone’s attention that a group of academy graduates have come through to establish themselves as seniors at Tigers in the last 18 months. But it still comes as a surprise to check just how many games that group has played.

Flicking through the pages of the match programme from our last game – which does seem an age away already – The Tig added up that the players who came out of the academy a couple of seasons ago and then served an apprenticeship in the development squad as a platform for their major breakthrough during the last two years are now approaching 300 first-team games between them.

It seems an incredible figure in such a short space of time.

George Worth is the oldest of that group, having turned 23 during this season, and he is now almost up to 60 first-team games.

He made his debut almost four years ago now, but the overwhelming majority of those appearances have come in the last two years, including 21 out of 23 played by Tigers this term. Having played along the backline as well as his usual position at full-back, his versatility helps in the selection equation but any place has to be earned and then retained, and his worth (no pun intended) is demonstrated in those figures.

Scrum-half Ben White, still just 21 years old, is a handful of appearances behind Worth and has already captained the Tigers at senior level as well as leading England Under-20s a couple of seasons ago.

Joe Heyes, meanwhile, would not have been alone in shrugging off any possibility of wearing the shirt 40 times in a little over a season-and-a-half as a senior front-rower.

A variety of circumstances hand young players their break in the big time, often around the medical misfortune of others, but this group is making a pretty significant contribution. Most of them have deputised for international players, too, which carries an added personal pressure on their shoulders at times in the season when resources throughout the squad can be stretched.

Although a big guy for someone so young, Heyes would have been expected to mature gradually into his role as a tighthead, especially one who hardly even played rugby until his teens. But he has been an almost ever-present since the start of last season and doesn’t reach his 21st birthday until the start of the next one.

At that age legends like Darren Garforth, Martin Castrogiovanni and Julian White had not even joined the Tigers while Dan Cole had been earning his stripes through the experience of Championship level rugby at Bedford.

Jordan Olowofela, meanwhile, has had a couple of injury absences but it is up to nearly 40 games and Tom Hardwick, the last-minute kicking hero on several occasions already this season, is up to 30. Tommy Reffell, Sam Lewis and Harry Simmons are not far behind in terms of experience in competitive positions either.

A good sign is that, even after a collective 300 games, there is more to come from the group too.

Even in good times there is a huge level of mental as well as physical effort required to play at the top level, but there is no doubt it has been even tougher – for players of all ages and experience – in the last couple of campaigns when Tigers have struggled.

But the success of its graduates not only bodes well for the club’s academy system, but also gives a boost to the group of hopefuls following behind them hoping to make a similar impact in future.