The wild celebrations at the end of the game provided ample evidence.
St Mary’s University had just secured a hard fought 29-21 victory over previously unbeaten Exeter University - and squad members, supporters and students alike raced on to the pitch in the middle of the campus, desperate to be a part of the rapidly expanding victory huddle.
And with good reason. These are exciting times for St Mary’s Rugby.
This has been the best start to a season by the students from Strawberry Hill in recent memory. After two middling years of league rugby, they are a side transformed and sit proudly on top of BUCS South B with a perfect record of seven wins from seven games heading into 2019.
Proof positive of the effect the university's ground-breaking partnership with Old Elthamians RFC is already having on rugby life at the campus after just one term.
The deal, which was announced in July this year, offers prospective students a fantastic opportunity to combine higher education studies with high-level professional rugby union support, offering excellence on the pitch and in the classroom.
As part of the five-year partnership, Old Elthamians are offering exceptional scholarships for talented rugby players to cover the full costs of tuition and accommodation fees (including meals), worth around £50,000 for the duration of a player’s studies.
For the first four beneficiaries of the scholarships provided by the partnership - prop Bobby Bratton, winger Aaron Grandidier, fly-half Oli Hobman and centre Ciaran McGann - it has been an experience that has exceeded all expectations so far.
England Counties U20 wing Grandidier, a product of the Elthamians youth section, has already made two first team appearances in National One so far this season, and admits he has made giant strides in every sense, since arriving at St Mary’s.
“Our rugby has improved massively,” he says. “We train pretty much every day, which for me is a massive bonus, so our progress individually and as part of the team has been really good. But also the quality of learning here is second to none and for a prospective student thinking about coming here, that's what you want to hear. St Mary’s is a great place to come to.”
Bratton, a powerful force of nature in the front row who made a timely return to the field against Exeter to stabilise the St Mary’s scrum at a crucial stage, is in agreement. “I think the whole experience in general, being with a great bunch of lads who we see every day, has just been amazing,” he said. “We are basically living the life of a professional rugby player. But it’s not just the rugby. St Mary’s is a great place to study. Everyone’s eager to learn and we get great support from all the lecturers, they are here to help you.”
Overseeing the Academy project and continued development of the talented quartet, is experienced coaching duo Peter Richards, the former England, Gloucester and London Irish scrum-half, and James Brooks, in his day a talented fly-half with England Sevens, Northampton and Wasps. The pair have quickly established a professional environment and winning mindset in and around the rugby programme.
“We are looking to grow Old Elthamians RFC and an Academy programme through the university,” Richards said. “So to bring guys through and get them a university degree and a full-time rugby programme. We’d love to see Super BUCs rugby back at St Mary’s. That’s the ambition and we are excited by the prospect.”
The partnership also allows St Mary’s to bring in players for their Scholarship Programme while some will also overlap and feature for OEs on the weekend in the National Leagues.
“Coming here and doing this course has been the best decision I have ever made without a doubt,” says Ciaran McGann, a strong running centre who impressed in Elthamians’ pre-season game against Championship side Jersey, and is combining his rugby studies with a degree in sports management. “In terms of improving my rugby and my skillset, Pete Richards and Brooksie have been absolutely fantastic, they are just the right coaches for me to improve.
“The facilities here are second to none. We use the running track for sprint training every Monday, the gym is fantastic, we have an excellent strength and conditioning coach and both our rugby coaches played England Sevens. It’s definitely the right place to be!”
Oli Hobman, the former Millfield captain and quick-stepping fly-half who spent time with Bath RFC prior to arriving at St Marys to study sports management, was the first of the quartet to arrive at the campus in Strawberry Hill in pre season. He has quickly immersed himself into student life on the campus. “I came down first in pre-season by myself, and all the boys took me in immediately and treated me as one of their own so it was definitely a good decision for me to come here,” he said. “It’s working really well, combining my studies with the rugby. They offer us a lot of flexibility, so Pete will be alright if we have to miss a training session, and the lecturers understand as well, so there’s a buy-in from both sides of the partnership.
“In terms of my rugby, I definitely feel like I’m developing a lot and have matured over the course of the term. I’d say that the buy-in everyone has here and the culture and the way the boys make you feel welcome, it creates a really positive environment. We are definitely heading in the right direction and enjoying our rugby. You can’t ask for much more really.”
The Old Elthamians/St Mary’s programme will see students join the Men’s Rugby Performance Programme (MRPP) that grants access to high-quality professional coaching, strength & conditioning services, performance analysis, rehabilitation and massage services, performance workshops and use of the University’s world-class training facilities.
Students unsuccessful in their applications for the MRPP will also have opportunities to play for the club’s 2nd and 3rd teams, accessing high-quality coaching and being part of a successful club environment, competing in BUCS competitions on Wednesday afternoons.
Please note that all players need to be eligible to study at St Mary’s, to confirm the University as their first choice institution and be accepted on a programme of study. Also, scholars will be asked to sign a player agreement.
Applications & Timeline
For those interested in the programme, the anticipated timeline for those starting in September 2019 is as follows:
• 15th January 2019 – All UCAS applications need to be made by this date
• 31st January 2019 – Majority of offer places are sent out
• 1st May 2019 – Applicants need to select St Mary’s as 1st choice by this date
• 5th July 2019 – Clearing opens for students that did not meet their offer and those that applied after the original UCAS application deadline (15th January)
• August 2019 – Club pre-season to begin
To register your interest in the programme, please go to https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/student-life/sport/rugby-scholarship.aspx www.stmarys.ac.uk and fill in the application form.
The closing date for applications is before 5pm on 15th January 2019.
Final selection of scholars will be undertaken by St Mary’s University and Old Elthamians and we aim to inform all successful scholars by 1st April 2019.
For players that do not apply by the 15th January UCAS deadline, subject to any scholarship places being left, it may be possible to apply through Clearing. Information on this will be released at a later date.
For more information about the Old Elthamians/St Mary's Partnership, contact the university's Sports Performance Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to know more about the Old Elthamians/St Mary's partnership? Click on the video link attached.
Updated 16:44 - 28 Dec 2018 by Jon Edwards