As we reach the business end of the rugby season, the first issue to be decided looks certain to be who in promoted to the Championship, the sport’s second tier.
There has been much debate in recent months about the sustainability of the division, with London Welsh folding as a professional club and several other teams publically admitting to financial strife.
The solution from Nigel Melville, the RFU’s Director of Professional Rugby, is not for the union to increase their monetary support but to offer to cut costs by allowing Championship teams to dual register up to eight players from a Premiership team under a “buddy club” system. Such a scheme would surely tighten the relationship between Gloucester and Hartpury, who are not only on the verge of sealing the National Division 1 title – and with it promotion to the Championship – but also provide Gloucester with their training base.
The link, of course, is already strong. Gloucester recently announced new contracts for Gareth Evans and Ben Vellacott, both of them Academy products, and any discussion over the most valuable player (sic) to come through the Gloucester-Hartpury system over the past decade would have to include Tom Savage. The 27 year old’s route into professional rugby certainly proves players develop at different rates.
Standing in the Hartpury clubhouse, Tom told me “I came here having not played a lot of rugby. I didn’t play at all until my local club at Bishops Castle in Shropshire started a junior section when I was 15. I played there for a season before going to the colts at Shrewsbury. I started in the fresher’s team at Hartpury and gradually moved up until I made the first team, and in my final year I was awarded a scholarship. Originally I came here to study but also to see if I could improve my rugby enough to do well at it. It seemed a far fetched dream at the time.”
Savage captained the Hartpury side that won the National Division 3 South West title in 2010-11. Throw forward to the present day and he’s made 139 appearances for Gloucester, while in the background the team he left behind have powered up through the pyramid. This may be their third season in the third tier, but Savage has not been surprised by their rapid rise, with another title this season now within reach.
“My Hartpury team was essentially made up of boys on scholarships, although we did have two former Wales internationals in Nathan Thomas, who was also a lecturer, and Darren Morris, who was player coach” Savage added. “I owe a lot to Mark Cornwell, who is now Head Coach, and Allan Lewis, who was Academy Director at Gloucester and pushed for the club to look at me as I was a bit of an unknown quantity.”
“I always look for their results and it’s great they are doing so well. There was always going to be a stage where it would get a bit sticky and they would get some more experienced boys in but it’s impossible not to see them going up this year. I know there is talk of more direct links between Premiership and Championship teams, and at the moment it’s hard for some of the younger lads to go to be expected to go to Rotherham or London Scottish and make a difference with one day’s training. If the buddy system is implemented and Hartpury go up, it’s happy days.”
Savage isn’t the only sporting professional in his family. His older brother Ben is a freestyle mountain bike stunt rider, and his dad rode motor bikes competitively too. Falling into rugby as he did, he humbly acknowledges he’s been fortunate with opportunities,and that time invested by others, plus his own dedication, has been time well spent. Looking over his shoulder, he can also see the next group of players following behind.
“We are well stocked in terms of back five forwards” he said. “Lewis Ludlow was given the opportunity to lead the team in the Anglo Welsh Cup earlier in the season and did really well. Freddie Clarke has been playing in the Championship and you could see in his performance at Bath last month he has really stepped up. If you add in Joe Batley and Charlie Beckett the stock is really high.”
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