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Tom Mitchell: Keep the pathway clear for students to reach very top

Tom MitchellWe are a few days away from the penultimate tournament of the 2013/14 HSBC World Sevens Series in Glasgow and therefore only a couple of weeks away from the series climax at Twickenham on the 10th and 11th of May. This heralds in an important time of the season for England 7s. We have two tournaments to chase down Fiji, currently 8 points ahead in the table, to win third place, and we have lots of improvements to make before the Commonwealth Games that looms large on the horizon.

However, what the next few months also provide for England 7s players are rare and much welcomed opportunities to play in front of a home crowd in the UK. I am not for a moment suggesting that Glasgow is a welcoming place for English sides, far from it, but we are at least close to home soil. This is not to be taken for granted when, on average, we travel around 7000 miles to play our rugby.

This time two years ago I was willing my unprepared body into action for the final two tournaments of my first season with England. It was also the final two weeks of stalling on starting my dissertation as I completed a postgraduate course at Oxford University. Oxford, amongst other universities, has a proud tradition of producing highly capable student rugby players but in the ever increasing competition of professional sport the question that becomes prevalent is: do students make good professional rugby players?

These days many professional football clubs scout their players at a very young age and track their development within their academies. The likelihood is if you’ve not been picked up by your early teens then you are unlikely to succeed. Rugby, though, is not like this and, due to the emphasis on physical demands, never will be.

However, the advantage of nurturing a player through their teens, honing their skills and developing their physical attributes is obvious. If a young player displays obvious skill or physical traits such as height, pace or strength, a club might invest to improve and enhance this player. As a result, these players become attractive prospects as they reach a suitable age for professional competition.

Compare this to a player who has spent three or four years at university. I am hesitant to generalise but much of what I was involved in at uni involved copious amounts of alcohol, a diet of plain pasta or whatever happened to be in the ‘reduced’ section of Tesco, and a general prioritising of having fun over ones physical health. This is certainly not good preparation for pro sport and it is only the ones who sacrifice some of the fun and replace it with focussed training that go on to be successful.

I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to go through university. On top of this I feel doubly fortunate that I have been able to get a job doing something that I so enthusiastically did for free for so many years. What this relied on largely was the willingness of Ben Ryan, then England 7s coach, to recognise student rugby as a suitable platform from which to scout up and coming players. I was invited along to train with England 7s purely on the basis of my games for University or student representative sides such as England Students or GB Students 7s.

Whilst I had no real experience of a professional rugby environment, I had been blessed with a plethora of other rugby experiences. During my time as an undergraduate at Bristol University, these ranged from travelling to Caldicot RFC with the Fresher team to play in Division Four East (a game which resulted in a few red cards and some beat up, although comfortably victorious, students) to travelling to Italy on a student organised (in the loosest sense of the term) tour to Italy. These are very different experiences to playing in a Hong Kong 7s final but I cherish the memories in exactly the same way.

Players have arrived in our current England 7s squad via a number of different routes. The likes of Callum Wilson and Dan Bibby have come straight into the set up following a stint at university. Others such as Alex Gray and Marcus Watson have come through premiership academies and the England age grade system. The benefit of this diversity of backgrounds is that players can share their experiences and lessons, making for a well-rounded culture.

There is often a lot of hype surrounding players who climb the ranks of England age groups and this is almost always warranted. What we should be wary of in todays age of intense professional competition is closing the door to those who have played amateur rugby at university where the game remains at a high standard. I have seen first-hand student players who have had an incredible talent who have not gone on to play at the top level.

There are a variety of reasons for this; some are not given the support to take the next step, some are at universities that don’t have strong teams and thus never have the opportunity to play at a high level, and some seek other careers – largely to see a guaranteed return on a sizeable investment in their own education.

I was lucky to end up at two universities, Bristol and Oxford, which had great rugby clubs that propelled players onto higher competition. Playing alongside my studies allowed me the four years to develop, physically and psychologically, so that I have been able to keep progressing in the game.

There seems to be no blueprint for what makes a good professional player. What is important is that minds are kept open and pathways recognised so as to bring through the best of England’s talent. Student rugby is producing some great players and long may it continue. I am grateful to the student game for where it has left me and the chants of ‘Bristol Man’ and ‘Shoe the Tabs’ still ring in my ears.

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