Eastern Counties boys excelling with Northampton Saints’ academy
- Credit: Archant
Remember the name, Alex Moon.
The England Under-18 international, from Ipswich, is the latest player from the region to have won a professional contract at Premiership giants, Northampton Saints. That’s no mean feat.
The quality of the Saints’ scouting and development network means that opportunities for youngsters to establish themselves at Franklin’s Gardens are extremely hard to come by. That’s before you even start discussing the strength in depth of last season’s Premiership champions’ first-team squad.
Former St Jo’s skipper Lewis Ludlam earned a year’s professional deal last summer, as did Harwich-born scrum half Alex Day a couple of years earlier.
The most notable name from the region is former Colchester player Mikey Haywood.
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While Haywood has just celebrated 100 games for the Saints, Ludlam has yet to break through, and has spent time playing at Coventry this season on a dual contract, while Day, with a handful of first team appearances under his belt, has found his route to the first team blocked by the likes of Lee Dickson and Kahn Fotuali’i.
Then there are those that don’t get that far at the Saints, the likes of George Wacokecoke, Dan Lewis and Karl Wilkins who all sought pastures new last summer, after being released from Northampton’s Junior Academy.
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The trio signed professional deals with Bath, Oyonnax and Clermont Auvergne respectively, much to the delight of the Saints’ Eastern Counties EPDG manager Simon Sinclair, who is tasked with discovering and developing the next generation of players for the Premiership giants, reporting to recruitment and development manager, Dusty Hare.
Reflecting on this year’s hopefuls, Sinclair said: “The (Northampton Saints) under-18s got to the academies final again and lost out to Saracens in the last four minutes.
“We had nine boys involved from the region in that, which was good.
“From that side, only one player from this region this year, Alex (Moon), has earned a professional contract.
“He has got a chance, he is six-foot-eight. When I watched him as a 13-year-old, while he was very tall, there was nothing to him.
“He was just a gentle giant, really, and when he came to us at the end of his under-14s season, we worked on his close skills and tried to make him a bit more aggressive.
“He won a three-year scholarship at Sedbergh at the end of the under-15s, he has filled out, got a lovely temperament and he has managed to get a contract.”
Moon is one of Sinclair’s success stories, Haywood perhaps being the most outstanding, having become an established player in England’s top flight.
His journey began at the EPDG which continues to blossom, although that brings its own dilemmas, according to Sinclair.
“We are just unfortunate as a club as there are so many pathways blocked and there are so many good youngsters sitting and waiting for first team opportunities,” revealed Sinclair.
“I think we only took five players this year into the senior squad, only one from this region – Alex – but that is because the standard is so high.”
The Saints’ under-17s played a game against Independent Schools earlier in the month and seven of the starting eight in the pack came from the Eastern Counties region.
The programme begins at under-13 level and Sinclair waxed lyrical about the potential he has seen from this region.
“We are in the strongest position we have been in the academy for this region and a lot of our boys were involved in the under-15s’ 10-try victory against Leicester recently,” he said.
“I have just done the talent ID for the under-13s and the bar is being raised every year.
“We have always produced good players and I think a lot of it’s to do with level of coaching they get at schools and club.
“The boys are coming to us at 13 and their core skills are already very good and that is credit to our local clubs.
“We have good relationships with all the clubs, Colchester, Bury, Woodbridge, Hadleigh Ipswich, Ipswich YM, Sudbury and Stowmarket.”
The youth aspect of the game is the heartbeat of the game according to Sinclair and no doubt popularity will continue to rise on the eve of this year’s World Cup, in England, and, locally, the domestic success of teams such as Bury St Edmunds, Chelmsford, Colchester and Sudbury.
“You have got to focus on youth, financially that’s where every club starts,” he explained.
“You can have a first 15 and can be successful but if you have not got players coming through, or the ones you have leave the area or go off to university, that would be difficult.
“Financially you can’t just rely on first 15 unless there’s a bit of money behind you.
“It used to be a couple of the bigger clubs but now we have got boys from every single club in the region which is brilliant, coaches are being trained the Saints way, and can only be good for the future.”