'ACE' programme going from strength to strength

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Newcastle Falcons’ ‘ACE’ scheme at Gosforth Academy continues to go from strength to strength, producing a valuable pipeline of players for the first team squad and beyond.

ACE programme manager Lawrence Patton has taken over the running of the scheme from PJ Butler, who last season joined the Falcons as an academy coach, with the ACE scheme having already helped to nurture professional players including George McGuigan, Callum Chick, Jamie Blamire, Tom Marshall, Morgan Passman, Callum Pascoe and Matthew Ward.

Rebranded from AASE to ACE this season, standing for ‘Academy Colleges and Education’, Patton explained the thought process behind the programme, saying: "It is there to basically give state school students at sixth-form age the same opportunities, training and pathways into senior, university and professional rugby as students from independent schools.

“They get full-time rugby alongside subjects at BTEC and A-Levels, and rugby is essentially one of their subjects. That means they have rugby sessions on their timetables – 13 lessons over two weeks – and we do stuff around that in terms of strength and conditioning, analysis and everything like that.

“It’s pretty full-on, but it’s really exciting for a 16-year-old kid to come into this environment.”

Opening up a number of options for its members, Patton added: “The ultimate thing for these lads is to progress into the Falcons academy stuff and from there into the senior academy, so it’s a pathway into professional rugby for them.

“If that’s not where they want to go or where they’re able to go, then the educational side of things opens the university door, or just prepares them for whatever the next step looks like in their educational or employment journey.

“As well as the guys we’ve had who’ve gone on to play professionally for the Falcons we’ve had a number of lads go on to play BUCS rugby at University, which is a good standard, and others have gone on to apprenticeships while playing senior rugby back at their home clubs, or progressing onto higher-level clubs.

“It definitely gives them a great grounding in terms of their rugby, and it keeps a whole load of options open to them by the time they’ve completed the programme.”

With ACE pupils now able to choose from a much wider array of subjects, Patton said: “When the scheme first began the basic principle was that the guys all followed the same academic programme, but the beauty now is that they can choose to study anything that fits into their timetable along with their rugby. They can do any A-Level or BTEC subject, and it’s more tailored to what they want to do.

“They’ve all got different interests, and the fact they’re doing rugby doesn’t mean they all have the same educational needs outside of that. We’ve got guys studying sociology, Spanish, history, German – you name it, they’re doing it, and I think that’s fantastic. The reality is that a career in professional rugby won’t work out for everyone, and by having these qualifications under their belt it just puts them in a better position for whatever they decide to move into.”

With an ever-increasing number of former ACE pupils now thriving in the professional game, Patton believes the Gosforth Academy alumni can help serve as motivation for the current crop.

“I’m relatively new to the programme myself, but having a back catalogue of guys who have come through and gone onto the professional game is obviously a huge inspiration for everyone involved,” he said.

“The programme now has a load of guys who’ve gone on to play professionally with the Falcons, and it’s established as a really solid pathway.

“We are supported by the Falcons’ academy staff in areas like coaching, strength and conditioning, physiotherapy and analysis, so the guys on the scheme know they’re firmly on the radar of the Falcons academy management. The link is already strong, and I’d love to make it even stronger.”

Unable to play games against their counterparts from the other Premiership clubs’ ACE programmes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Patton said: “Like every area of life, we’ve been affected by what’s going on.

“The main upshot has been the cancellation of this season’s ACE League, so we won’t be playing games against the other clubs, but we’re still concentrating very strongly on skills development. We’re using this time effectively to break down our skills, looking at what makes them work and how we can be better at them.

“Strength and conditioning is another aspect we’re into, although it’s obviously tough in terms of getting into gyms in a school environment. I’m putting together some plans as to how we can tackle that side of things, but all the lads are cracking on with their own programmes and are very self-organised around that.”

Delighted at the quality of people coming through the programme, he added: “The values we’re looking at are around guys being hard-working, honest, relentless and positive role models. Those sorts of traits will go a long way in any environment, and it means they’re impressive young men whatever they go on to when they leave us.

“Yes, we’re coaching them as rugby players, but a big aspect of it is helping to develop them as young men and giving them the values which will fit into their lives after they leave us. If they go on to be outstanding people regardless of their rugby careers, then we take a lot of satisfaction from that.”

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