With the junior academy back in training and a number of players called up by England age-group squads, academy manager Mark Laycock said: “It’s a hugely positive time for the academy, even with everything going on.
“We have seven Under-17s and five Under-18s who have been invited to England training camps, and we have a good spread from throughout our region.
“Of those lads we have four from Cumbria, four from County Durham and four from Northumberland, so it just shows the talent we have all around our patch.”
The invited players are:
Sam Birbeck (Newton Rigg College / Kirkby Lonsdale RFC)
Luke Coulston (Gosforth Academy / Penrith RFC)
Louie Johnson (Sedbergh School / Penrith RFC)
Ollie Spencer (Sedbergh School)
Mark Dormer (RGS Newcastle)
Ollie Fletcher (Newcastle School for Boys / Tynedale RFC)
Charlie Smith (Dame Allans School / Novocastrians RFC)
Ben Douglas (Gosforth Academy / Northern RFC)
Guy Pepper (Barnard Castle School)
Ewan Greenlaw (Durham School, Horden RFC)
Jake Metcalfe (Barnard Castle School)
Harry Williams (Barnard Castle School / Stockton RFC)
Laycock added: “We also have two players in the England Under-20s training group, Phil Brantingham at prop and Matty Ward on the wing. They will play against each other in an internal squad game, and that will be a great experience for them.”
Despite a lack of games at academy level Laycock revealed: “As well as so many boys receiving England call-ups we’ve also been fortunate that we’ve been able to train throughout lockdown thanks to the elite sportsperson exemption rules.
“Our junior academy lads have been training twice a week at Kingston Park, which has been great.
“They’ve been based in the South Stand, so they’re not using any of the same indoor facilities as the first team squad. They’re following extremely strict rules around wearing face masks, even when they’re in the gym, and they’re sanitising every 15 minutes.
“The players and staff have been awesome in how they’ve adapted to and followed all the rules, because at the end of the day we just want to keep the guys safe.”
Aiming to put that training to good use once restrictions allow, Laycock said: “What we’re working towards is a block of Under-18s games in May, which will hopefully give the lads who are leaving our programme a chance to finish their time with us on a high.
“Nobody wants to just train all the time and never play a game, and it has been hard for the boys.
“We’re under no illusions about how lucky we are to be able to do the training we’re doing, because a lot of people aren’t even able to do that due to the restrictions. Hopefully there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel with the prospect of some games coming up, although like anything we have to follow all the guidance and adapt to situations as they change.
“The next thing from there will be the return of our Developing Player Programme, whenever that is, and the return of our staff from part-time furlough. It just means we’ll be able to get out and watch guys playing for their schools and clubs, although again we know we have to wait until the appropriate time for all those things to happen.”
Laycock combines his academy manager position with a role as first-team skills coach, and has been pleased by the number of products who have shone for the Falcons’ senior side.
“We’ve only played four first-team games in the past nine weeks, which is obviously disappointing, but there are lots of positives to take in terms of how the academy graduates are featuring,” he said.
“In every single game we’ve played this season we’ve had an academy product playing fly-half, and throughout the team the numbers have been strong.
“We had six academy guys making their senior debuts in Europe in December (Bailey Ransom, Freddie Lockwood, Callum Pascoe, Will Haydon-Wood, Zach Kerr and Chidera Obonna), Josh Basham and Will Montgomery making their Premiership debuts, and I was reading a stat the other day which said we had the second-highest percentage of homegrown players starting in our Premiership games across the course of the season so far.
“That’s really pleasing, and we have senior academy guys ready to play in the Championship with Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti at Jersey Reds and Conrad Cade at Doncaster Knights.
“Hopefully we’ll also have the Premiership Cup after the Six Nations, which would be another great opportunity for guys to get game time, and with there being no Premiership Shield this season that’s really important for them.”