Whilst it is the top division of university rugby which often grabs the headlines, Talking Rugby Union has been closely monitoring the progress of Manchester Metropolitan University as they continue their journey to the summit of the student game.
After a season cut short due to Covid-19, Rob Jones’ team ply their trade in Premier 2. Second at the time that the league was postponed, Jones jokes that his side were the best team in the league for 78 minutes, having suffered late losses at the hands of Sheffield, Leeds Beckett 2’s and Manchester University.
With over 33,000 students at the university and some 800 courses, Jones says that it is an extreme point of pride to be working with such a progressive and innovative educational facility in, what he describes, as the country’s sporting capital.
“We are not a rigid, stuck in our old ways university, we are always moving forward,” Jones said. “We have got a lot of flexibility in our study, a lot of appetite to work with governing bodies and professional institutions. Our degree apprenticeship is trailblazing across the education, our rugby programme is one of the best outside of BUCS Super Rugby.
“I’d say our rugby programmes is better than half of those BUCS Super Rugby universities, it is just that we’re not playing in that league yet and that is the challenge, to get there and (Sale) Sharks want us there as well.”
So far, over 30 Manchester Metropolitan players have represented Sale Sharks in some capacity with the majority featuring for the development side, the Sale Sharks Jets. Speaking exclusively to Talking Rugby Union, Jones unveiled a new partnership between the university and Sale that will see several academy players line up in blue and orange next season.
“Sharks is one of the strongest academies in the UK and we have got an abundance of talent in the North-West,” Jones said. “We have definitely assisted with a lot of the professionals who currently study with us. An exciting announcement is to happen pretty soon which could see a whole raft of the senior academy contracted players represent the university.
“I think any senior academy player will massively benefit from the university programme. Maybe they’ll be under a little less pressure, but it is a real playing opportunity because I think some of these boys are struggling for game time. This will give them that 14 games a season with the university plus up to eight games with the Jets.
“That’s a real good season of maybe 22 games and I think that is the model that both entities are working towards. We are Manchester. It is really exciting, massively challenging for me as well. I have got to develop my coaching continually, so I am working myself towards my level four and that is really exciting, challenging hard work. But you don’t get anywhere without the hard work do you?”
More recently, Sale Sharks have announced that they will have a women’s team competing in the Premier 15s competition and Darren Lamon’s side will be sharing resources with Manchester Met to ensure that both parties get the most out of their partnership.
Already, the Sale Sharks junior academy train and play their games at the Platt Lane sports facility so Sharks Women are just another example of the integration. It is a unique partnership in rugby with Hartpury and Gloucester, as well as the University of Bath and Bath Rugby the only comparable agreements between an educational facility and a professional side.
“Sharks are excellent at looking after their players holistically,” Jones said. “They have had headaches and challenges to try and find the right education programme for an athlete with a full-time professional sports calendar. I speak with parents of some of the pros and there is no guarantee that you will make it once you sign a professional contract, so they have got to be looking after themselves as a whole.
“They have got to look after their education, Sharks have seen that, they get it from top to bottom. They have filled in one of their missing pieces from the jigsaw with the women and they are really excited about that.”
Jones’ programme is extremely well tied in with the university as many of the various courses and programmes help aid the athletes to perform at the highest level possible. As such, the Sale Sharks academy players will have access to world class facilities.
“The fact that we brought our sport and exercise science department into Manchester, away from our Cheshire campus,” Jones said. “We have got some fantastic work being done with the sports and exercise faculty, our sports nutrition course has really blended into the rugby programme now. Our university, in terms of research in terms of sports science is phenomenal.
“There are opportunities everywhere and I think that is where we have done really well as a university. We provide the lads with opportunities, whether that is England Universities Sevens, England Students XVs. There is opportunity everywhere for them and they are constantly working with the university for their research.
“Last season they did a gumshield test, they got three free gumshields and there were all these tests done. It is pretty exciting, a real positive example of how departments can work together and really kick on.”
Just two promotions stand between Manchester Met and their goal of BUCS Super Rugby. With the support of a Premiership side, as well as the North-West, the future of Manchester Met is set to be at the top of the university rugby pyramid.