Aaron Wainwright in action for Wales. Pic: Getty Images.

Cardiff Met RFC: An Alternative Route To Stardom. . . As Proved By Aaron Wainwright and Alex Dombrandt

With the return of the Indigo Welsh Premiership this week, debate has begun again over what are the best routes to develop the regional and international stars of the future. Former Wales head analyst Alun Carter, now working at Cardiff Met, reckons the university’s system of developing talent like Wales’ Aaron Wainwright and England’s Alex Dombrandt proves a formidable pathway is already here under the noses of the Welsh Rugby Union. 

Cardiff Met. students rise to the challenge of supporting their team at the Arms Park

The orchestrated singing resonated loudly across Westgate Street echoing off the walls of the Angel Hotel and into the city of Cardiff. This was not international day. It was BUCS Super Rugby night.

Cardiff University were taking on Cardiff Metropolitan RFC in a league that is vibrant, of high quality and very well supported. The energy of youth was apparent in the 4,000 students competing against each other to out sing, out support and lyrically out think the opposition in the stands of the Arms Park.

This energy is evident in the delivery of the rugby programme at Cardiff Metropolitan University that has provided a platform for a number of Met. Alumini to progress smoothly into professional rugby. Alex Dombrandt, Luke Northmore (both Harlequins), Tom Pearson (London Irish), Will Hurd (Leicester), Ellis Bevan (Cardiff Rugby) have recently made this transition whilst Jack Yeandle has been leading the charge with Exeter Chiefs for many years including successes in the Gallagher Premiership and European Cup.

These former Cardiff Met. RFC players all have the foundation of a degree to fall back on. There is an argument that this holistic model provides greater value than the current professional rugby academy programmes available.

Capped by England in May and an ever present squad selection for the recent Autumn Rugby Internationals, ex-Cardiff Met. Student, Alex Dombrandt, looks back on ‘uni-life as the best three years of his life.

In a recent interview on the Good, the Bad and the Rugby, an independent podcast, he reflects on his experience at Cyncoed, stating that the training programme was as good as any professional set up.

A combination of Welsh Championship rugby and BUCS Super Rugby, the latter which is made up of the 10 best rugby Universities in England and Wales, provided a varied but competitive route to professional rugby.

BUCS Super Rugby has creditability having seen recent English and Welsh internationals, Freddie Steward (Loughborough University) and Christ Tshiunza (Exeter University) also play in the competition.

Cardiff Met graduate Alex Dombrandt playing for England against Australia. Pic Getty Images.

Alex Dombrandt after a MOM performance in the BUCS Super Rugby Final 2018

For Alex the added incentive of an academic pathway is having a qualification and degree by the age of 21, in his case a 2:1 in the Sports Programme at Cardiff Met.

Damian Hopley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Professional Rugby Association, the body that looks after rugby players in the Gallagher Premiership, stated in 2018 that a professional player’s life span in this league is 7-8years, 10 years at the most if you are fortunate.

This equates to 16-20% of an average person’s working life in time spent playing rugby.

It is minimal and the importance of having alternatives in your life takes on greater significance. Freddie Steward has decided to finish his degree in Economics and Spanish, after gaining a contract with Leicester Tigers.

Rugby career against working life

A recent accolade from the Times Higher Education recognising Cardiff Metropolitan as the University of the Year 2021, cited amongst other things, ‘compassionate leadership’, as being one of the reasons for this award.

The Cardiff Met. RFC rugby programme exemplifies this approach. Director of Rugby for four years and with an involvement for the last ten years, Senior Lecturer, Danny Milton leads a strong coaching team in delivering some key messages to students which align themselves to the University values.

Although the rugby training programme is intensive, with a comprehensive S&C base running alongside skills and technical development, one eye is always kept on the course work of the student.

The analysts (third year students on placement) have even developed a system to monitor players match and training time against their course work.

If their module marks start to fall, the students are taken out of training and selection to focus on their course work and get the balance right.

There is an incentive to deliver balance and recognise the big picture. Team Manager and coaches, Amber Regardsoe and Thomas Griffiths monitor this closely. Ellis Bevan, a scrum half, who is now with Cardiff Rugby, gained a 1st class Hons. in business from the University.

Danny Milton is supported by an experienced coaching team who follow his lead.

Not only do they coach up to 200 students but they also deliver courses within the University framework.

As well as producing players fit for the Gallagher Premiership this coaching team has also produced coaches fit for professional rugby too!

It doesn’t end there; some of the coaching team also pursue their own academic post graduate interests in the area they love – coaching. Danny is currently in the process of completing a PhD examining Motivational Climate: Creating and empowering environments. There is a relentless pursuit of excellence.

The facilities within the University support the high performance environment. Strength and conditioning Manager Dai Watts, has a depth of experience having worked as a part of the back- room staff with Warren Gatland’s 2008 Grand Slam winning team then supported Welsh rugby

U-21’s, U-18’s and the 7’s squad as well as Welsh women’s rugby. The S&C programme is based at the National Indoor Athletic Centre (Cyncoed campus) and integrated within the degree course running at times that do not clash.

This places a firm commitment on the shoulders of those aspiring to make the Cardiff Met. RFC First XV, with students having to start training at the crack of dawn, or earlier, for some of these sessions.

Danny Milton, Director of Rugby, surrounded by the Cardiff Met. Rugby team

Contributing to this formidable team are Head Coach Dr. Ian Gardner who recently completed his doctorate in Sports Coaching, Dr.Gethin Thomas, Alun Williams, Chris Ower and Rhys Roberts.

Gardner represented the University when it was UWIC back in the 90’s. He joined the University after 21 years as a Physical Education teacher in Caerphilly. ‘Gards’ was Head Coach of Bedwas RFC prior to taking on his current role; he is responsible for the forwards and the defence.

Rhys (Roberts) helps manage the group and is responsible for attack from 1st phase.

Former Newport RFC prop, Alun ‘Benny’ Williams, brings a hard edge to the coaching team. He focuses on the technical aspects of the scrum and the lineout lift.

Talking to Danny Milton prior to this season it was apparent that he understands development of the person as being as important as the development of the rugby player.

This mirrors the recent words of New Zealand great and twice Rugby World Cup winning player, Sonny Bill Williams, “I always say a better man makes a better athlete”.

This was taken from a frank conversation with James Haskell and Alex Payne on the Good, the Bad and the Rugby podcast last month about his recent biography, “You can’t stop the sun from shining”.

Cardiff Met. RFC provides an attractive alternative model to that of the current professional rugby academy in the UK.

The overriding culture of the University is authentic – based firmly on values that everyone looks to learn, share and live by.

It is one that will not only give you the skills and attributes to play professional rugby but one that will give you the skills and attributes for a career for life not just rugby.


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