University of Wollongong and Crusaders partner to help develop future Wallabies

The University of Wollongong have partnered with the Crusaders to launch a rugby academy in New South Wales. 

It’s a lot to get your head around at first. 

But after listening to those from UOW and the Crusaders talk, the partnership makes sense for all involved. 

In late March, enrolments will open for the inaugural UOW Crusaders Global Rugby Academy. 

Set to kick off in early 2021, aspirational students will train 20 hours a week in a rugby academy managed by the Crusaders, while studying at either the University of Wollongong or their affiliated college. 

“We’re partnering with the number one rugby franchise in the world, so it’s a really exciting day,” UOW Vice Chancellor Alex Frino told Rugby News. 

“It’s a unique program and there’s nothing else like it in the world. Our aim is to give university students the opportunity to develop their rugby and not the other way around.”

The rugby academy is modelled off a similar football program that UOW launched in partnership with English Premier League club Tottenham Hot Spurs earlier this year. 

UOW’s push towards sport is as obvious as it is strategic. As Frino pointed out at last night’s launch, the two things that the majority of the world’s top universities have in common with one another is academic excellence and high quality sporting programs. 

Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, UCLA. Frino thinks UOW can follow a similar model. 

And a partnership with the Crusaders isn’t a bad start. 

In 24 seasons of Super Rugby, the Christchurch based club have won 10 titles, played in another four grand finals and missed the playoffs on just four occasions, two of which were in the first two years of the competition. 

Incredibly one in every three Crusaders players goes on to represent the All Blacks. 

And they believe it has nothing to do with rugby. 

“The Crusader way is about culture. That’s what sets us apart,” International Academy manager Grant Keenan explained. 

“The club has an environment where everyone wants to be better. Everyone is treated the same, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from and it’s certainly not all about what we do on the field. 

“It’s more about what we do off it and because of that we always make sure we select good people first and good rugby players second. 

“We know that our coaching is the best, so we need to make sure that the people we select are first and foremost, just really, really good people.”

Former All Blacks and Crusaders captain Reuben Thorne reiterated that message at yesterday’s launch. 

“It might sound cliche, but it’s simply about being good people first,” Thorne said. 

“Trophies might be the end game in rugby but the way in which you get there is equally important, if not more. 

“You’ve got to be a good person, you’ve got to treat people with respect and we firmly believe that if you get the off field stuff right, if you’re disciplined, respectful, if you get all the little things right off the field, then you’ll be a far better player on it. That’s what we’ll try and promote through this academy.”

Thorne said the Crusaders aren’t interested in stealing Australian rugby players to take back over the ditch. 

“We’re genuinely passionate about growing the game of rugby, that’s our motive,” he said. 

“We want to spread what we do in Christchurch, because we think it’s a pretty good system, and if we can inspire a few kids around the world to get involved and play rugby then we’ll be really happy.”

“Through the academy, we want to try and make players better on the field and help them become better people off it. That will help them manage all facets of their lives from sport, to study and eventually into work and family life.”

If you didn’t know the Crusaders history, you’d probably think this was a perfectly executed PR campaign. 

But the numbers stack up and its hard not to buy in. 

Former New Zealand netball star Maree Bowden is the Personal Development Manager at the Crusaders Academy. 

She believes the combination of tertiary study and rugby is ideal and seemed confident that UOW could replicate the Crusaders culture in Wollongong. 

“A lot of players that come to the Crusaders and to our academies come from out of town and don’t have a strong support network around them, so initially I work to build a relationship with the players so they have someone to turn to.

“From there my role covers everything from personal development to finance, time management, cooking, mental health. 

“I get a lot of enjoyment in seeing them play really well, but I also enjoy watching their development as a person. 

“In Christchurch, most of the boys spend three years with us and some come in extremely shy and struggle to look you in the eye and by the end they’re giving speeches in front of huge groups of people. I really enjoy that side of my job.”

While Australian rugby fans remember Reuben Thorne terrorising the Wallabies through the 2000’s, most don’t realise that the 50-cap All Black was somewhat of a late bloomer and missed selection in most under age representative sides. 

The backrower said the academy would have helped a player like him, who took a little longer to develop than others around him. 

“Some kids are ready to play Super Rugby at 18, other aren’t ready until their 22 or 23 or even later so you’ve got to have a pathway for players that aren’t ready to play professionally straight out of school and this academy does that. 

“They can study, learn and grow plus they’ll have access to incredible facilities, quality coaching and a fantastic lifestyle.

“I think we’ll get a bit of a mix of talent but they’re all going to aspirational, they wouldn’t be doing it otherwise and they’ll be able to combine what they learn through the academy with a quality education, so I think it will eventually be a fantastic pathway for some young talent.”

Thorne said he’s not quite ready to see the All Blacks dominance over the Wallabies end just yet, but was genuine in his interest in improving rugby on this side of the Tasman. 

“New Zealand needs Australian rugby to be strong, we all know and want that. 

“We joked about it earlier but I think if we do eventually see a player come through the academy and go on to play for the Wallabies, even is he does beat the All Blacks, well then we would have done our job and I think we’ll all be pretty chuffed about it.”

Applications for the 2021 program begin in March. Click here to find out more.