Cardiff Metropolitan University's rugby department takes pride in production line of stars

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At the start of February, the phone rang at Cardiff Metropolitan University’s rugby department.

On the end of the line was England analyst Carwyn Morgan, a former student in the Welsh capital and a key figure in the Red Rose set-up who works closely with head coach Eddie Jones.

Cardiff Met’s coaches are used to taking such calls. They have done so previously to discuss the prospects of Alex Dombrandt and Luke Northmore. 

Alex Dombrandt is one of a host of international players from Cardiff Metropolitan University

Alex Dombrandt is one of a host of international players from Cardiff Metropolitan University

Dombrandt is pictured playing for the university's rugby team against Glynneath back in 2017

Dombrandt is pictured playing for the university’s rugby team against Glynneath back in 2017

This time around, the topic of conversation was London Irish’s Tom Pearson. All three are Cardiff Met old boys and been members of Jones’ England squad this Six Nations.

The university’s remarkable production line – which has developed 52 Welsh internationals, two England Test caps, Kieran Marmion of Ireland and 19 British & Irish Lions – shows no sign of slowing down. 

‘Eddie goes through Carwyn who contacts us,’ said Cardiff Met director of rugby Danny Milton, the man leading one of the most unlikely pathways for future England internationals imaginable. 

‘England have done it a couple of times now. They want to know not just about a player’s rugby ability, but also their character and to find out a bit more about them as people.’

The university's remarkable production line helped Luke Northmore get selected for England

The university’s remarkable production line helped Luke Northmore get selected for England

Danny Milton, Cardiff Met's director of rugby, explained to Sportsmail how the pathway works

Danny Milton, Cardiff Met’s director of rugby, explained to Sportsmail how the pathway works

England’s Cardiff Metropolitan University old boys contingent

Alex Dombrandt 

Position: No 8

Club: Harlequins

England caps: 6

Degree: Sport and PE (2:1)

Luke Northmore

Position: Centre

Club: Harlequins

England caps: 0

Degree: Sports Conditioning and Rehabilitation (2:1)

Tom Pearson

Position: Flanker

Club: London Irish

England caps: 0

Degree: Sport and Exercise Science (2:1)

 

‘It certainly shows the due diligence Eddie and England go through.’

Milton and Cardiff Met are not only producing great rugby players, but also good people too.

When England host Wales in a win-or-bust Six Nations clash at Twickenham on Saturday, three of the establishment’s former students will be in the extended squads of both sides.

Dombrandt is a likely England starter while Northmore and Pearson have been members of the wider England party in the Championship so far.

Two more Met old boys – Aaron Wainwright and Alex Cuthbert – are in the Wales squad. 

The Met rivalries will also extend to the coaching boxes. Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys and analysts Rhodri Bown and Marc Kinnaird are both products of the university like England’s Morgan.

‘If Alex scores gets a hat-trick then as long as Aaron scores four and Wales win by a point, we will be alright,’ said Milton, a passionate Welshman, with a smile.

‘I had a chat with Alex the other day and I said to him, “I don’t mind what you do, so long as Wales win at the end!”‘

Dombrandt, Northmore and Pearson are the latest cabs off the Cardiff Met rank. 

All three were born in England and educated in Wales at an establishment which can count Welsh rugby greats Sir Gareth Edwards, JJ Williams, Ryan Jones and Ken Owens among its prestigious alumni. Jones and the rest of the rugby world have quickly cottoned on to what’s going on at the university.

Northmore also represented the university, which is an unlikely pathway into the England team

Northmore also represented the university, which is an unlikely pathway into the England team

Cardiff Met matches are now watched by up to six agents looking to spot the next international coming through the ranks. Jones has already extolled the virtues of university rugby.

The Australian has described the Cyncoed college as ‘a popular breeding ground for Test match rugby players.’ He added: ‘I’m sure every club is now looking in the bars of Cardiff Met.

‘The beauty of rugby has been the diversity of the people who play the game. I still think there is a place for players to go through the academic stream first and then into professional rugby.’

Milton’s narrative of university rugby is slightly different to that of Jones.

‘I remember walking down Wellfield Road in Cardiff with my wife and seeing Alex with a bag of cream cakes. He had a sweet tooth,’ he remembered. 

More recently, the Red Rose coaching set-up held talks with the university over Tom Pearson

More recently, the Red Rose coaching set-up held talks with the university over Tom Pearson

The university uses state of the art analysis facilities and ensures their stars work relentlessly

The university uses state of the art analysis facilities and ensures their stars work relentlessly

‘Let’s not pretend university rugby players don’t drink. They enjoy the odd pint and it’s important to do that, but I’m frustrated by the narrative of drinking around university rugby.

‘Our boys are in the gym at 6.30 four mornings a week. They’ll be in on Saturday mornings and with three training sessions a week plus analysis all alongside their degree, they have to do a lot of work.’

Cardiff Met has a mammoth 12 men’s teams and over 280 players. Their best operators play in the British Universities and Colleges (BUCS) Super Rugby league in midweek and in the senior Welsh Championship at weekends.

‘Alex was probably the most naturally gifted player I’ve seen,’ Milton said. ‘He did have some challenging moments when he was here. Alex had his jaw broken in a Championship game with Glynneath which was a particularly unsavoury incident.

‘The Championship is proper men’s rugby and he was punched from behind. There was a court case on it so Alex might say his Championship experience wasn’t his favourite moment!

‘But he worked very hard at his strength and conditioning with us because that was a big weakness of his. He made a huge improvement in that area and has done the same with Harlequins.’

Dai Watts, the university's head of strength and conditioning, helped Dombrant lose stones

Dai Watts, the university’s head of strength and conditioning, helped Dombrant lose stones

Former Cardiff Met students playing professional rugby

Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins and England)

Luke Northmore (Harlequins and England)

Tom Pearson (London Irish and England)

Aaron Wainwright (Dragons and Wales)

Alex Cuthbert (Ospreys and Wales)

Ken Owens (Scarlets and Wales)

Jack Yeandle (Exeter)

Dan Bibby (England Sevens)

Max Llewellyn (Cardiff)

Evan Lloyd (Dragons)

Kieran Marmion (Connacht and Ireland)

Richard de Carpentier (Bath)

Sam Cross (Ospreys)

Owen Jenkins (Dragons)

Dombrandt dropped from a mammoth 22 stone to 18 at Cardiff Met thanks to the meticulous fitness programme run by the university’s head of strength and conditioning Dai Watts. 

‘Alex was a very good cricketer,’ Watts said. ‘In pre-season we had a cricket game and he was hitting people all over the place! He worked very, very hard and had belief he could be a professional.

‘Tom didn’t have the greatest rugby background when he came in. I wasn’t sure he would make it, but he and Luke both nailed it on the diet and professional side.

‘They not only trained hard, they trained bright. Aaron’s repeat speed was unbelievable – he was one of the fasted I’ve seen. The guys who make it tend to be the bright ones who know how to manage the different parts of their lives.’

With analysis and strength and conditioning facilities most Gallagher Premiership clubs would envy and a fanatical support base, Cardiff Met continues to go from strength to strength.

Last Wednesday night, hundreds of students braved torrential driving rain and a howling gale to watch their side’s BUCS clash with Welsh rivals Swansea.

‘Take me home, Cyncoed Road,’ they sang, pints of cider and black a distraction from the horrendous conditions and what was in the end a first home defeat since October.

A monster wind-assisted drop goal from his own half by Gwyn Parks helped Swansea to victory and quickly went viral on social media.

Milton has also described Dombrandt as 'probably the most naturally gifted player I've seen'

Milton has also described Dombrandt as ‘probably the most naturally gifted player I’ve seen’

A large crowd braved the poor weather to drink beer and cheer on their team against Swansea

A large crowd braved the poor weather to drink beer and cheer on their team against Swansea

Milton is keen to emphasise university rugby is not a rival to the more traditional club or academy structures which dominate the professional game today.

Instead, he sees education as an alternative or complimentary development tool to rugby and stresses the importance of good grades to all his players. He is clearly good at doing exactly that.

Met students must focus on their degree during the day and if they don’t perform academically, they are put on performance plans. Unless there is an improvement, they are dropped by Milton.

Cardiff Met now have a close working relationship with Harlequins. Their system is designed to be as close as possible to professional level. The university has even outlawed drinking initiations and banned supporters from chanting offensive songs.

‘Not everyone is ready to be a professional at 18 and having a degree alongside your rugby should be applauded and encouraged,’ said Milton, who has been at Cardiff Met since 2008 and took over as director of rugby in 2017. 

‘We think we are like the Lions. It’s not a job for us. We feel lucky to be involved.’

The university 'feel lucky to be involved' in helping to bring through the players of tomorrow

The university ‘feel lucky to be involved’ in helping to bring through the players of tomorrow

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