9th April 2018, 10:05 | university
Rugby League's rising stars tackle New Zealand this summer in one of the toughest tests in student sport.
Simon Rushworth discovered how TASS is helping to nurture the next generation on and off the field.
Rugby Football League Higher Education Manager Adam Hughes understands better than most the unique pressures facing those full-time students who choose to chase their Rugby League dream.
After six years coaching the cream of the crop at Sheffield Hallam University - a role he combined with that of Community Manager at Sheffield Eagles - Hughes witnessed at first hand the mental stress and physical strain endured by young men determined to follow the dual career path.
"It's tough enough being a full-time student without having to combine that with high performance sport - especially when it's a full contact sport like Rugby League," he explained.
"These lads need all of the support they can get."
Hence Hughes hopes that the Rugby Football League's relationship with the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) can only go from strength to strength.
Almost half of the England Universities squad named to face New Zealand in two Student Rugby League Tests this spring benefit from TASS support.
Harry Aaronson is one of those players.
A Social Policy student at the University of Leeds - and a key member of the Keighley Cougars squad - he can shed further light on the true value of TASS support at a time when academic demands dovetail with an intense on-field schedule.
"You can't spend all of your time playing sport and working - you have to find some down time," said Aaronson.
"I try to take time out away from the rugby and the degree to spend time with friends and family just chilling. That's vital and that's what TASS encourage us to do.
"As a TASS-supported athlete, the strength and conditioning is invaluable but the main thing I've benefited from has been the video testing that's included in the programme.
"The physio I was working with outlined where I was strong and where I was a little weaker and I went back to Keighley with the results.
"They were able to tailor my training around those results and it's been of huge benefit to my all-round game."
Players aiming to carve out a career in the sport they love no longer need to choose between Rugby League and an education. Those committed to both can access tailor-made support on and off the field in order to pursue their sporting dream, and lay the foundation for life after League.
"Education is a big thing for me," added Aaronson.
"My dad told me from a very young age that it’s fine to dream of becoming a professional Rugby League player but that it's important that I can fall back on a good education.
"Even if you do make it as a professional in Rugby League player and enjoy a long career it's not like football – you won't earn enough money to never have to work again.
"I'm a big believer in the importance of education."
Aaronson's views are echoed by England Universities team mate and Sheffield University law undergraduate, Marcus Stock.
The Hemel Stags star faces a constant battle to fit his Rugby League around an exacting timetable but feels it's a challenge he can tackle head on.
"This is my first year as a TASS athlete and I’m already feeling the benefits," he added.
"I chose law after reading To Kill A Mockingbird. After that I knew I wanted to do something that could make a difference in the world and law gives me that chance.
"But it's a tough degree and being on the TASS programme has helped me to organise my time better and understand the challenges that I face being an athlete and an undergraduate.
"I don't really have any free time but it's a case of using that time wisely and knowing when to take a break and when to make some sacrifices.
"When your flatmates are heading out for a few beers it might be best to stay in and think about the bigger picture.
"So far I feel as if I've really benefited from the life management side of the TASS support package and I particularly enjoyed the psychology workshop.
"The information I learned there is transferable to my law degree so it was doubly useful.
"To have TASS involved in student Rugby League is hugely beneficial - it's a massive opportunity for the sport moving forward."
Hughes agrees. As the man responsible for overseeing the dedicated TASS hubs at the universities of Northumbria and Leeds, he has seen the benefits of Rugby League working hand in hand with ambitious undergraduates determined to prove the dual career model can work.
"From the RFL's point of view it's great to tie in with TASS," he added.
"The work they've done with their hubs at Leeds and Northumbria has been fantastic. It's opened up opportunities to many more players than we've ever worked with before. We love working with TASS.
"And it's quite clear that the student athletes who have come through TASS come out of university better prepared on and off the field.
"They know how to fit everything in to a busy life and know how to balance that life.
"They can continue playing and hold down a good job because they've learnt valuable dual career lessons during their time as TASS-supported students at university.
"They know that there has to be give and take and they're better prepared mentally. They have learnt to juggle their workload with Rugby League and still have a life outside sport and education."
Jason Bass is better placed than most to underline the value of being a TASS-supported Rugby League player.
Four years of support have opened his eyes to new opportunities on and off the field and with graduation and the Kiwi Test series to come in 2018, the Newcastle University undergraduate is looking forward to his biggest year yet.
"In my first year at Newcastle I played one game for the university and broke my wrist," he explained.
"Physically and mentally it destroyed me for a while. I missed out on selection for England and it was a massive blow - I was in a new city, away from home and suddenly I couldn't play the sport I loved. My expectations had been so high.
"That’s when I realised the true value of the TASS support. My lifestyle advisor was brilliant getting me through those first few weeks and of course there was the practical medical support. With the rehabilitation and S&C support, TASS helped me get through a very, very difficult time.
"Looking back, I'm so pleased that I made the decision to pursue my academic career at the same time as developing as a Rugby League player.
"During the last four years I don't think I've compromised on either. I’ve been playing for Coventry Bears, I've made the England squad and I'm heading towards a 2:1. I'm happy with that."
Bass is part of the England Universities squad that competes in the Rugby Football League's Presidents Cup against GB Police, GB Teachers and UK Armed Forces Rugby League prior to the two Student Rugby League Test Matches against New Zealand.
The squad will then be cut to 20 for a final match against Keighley Cougars Reserves before the Student Rugby League Four Nations competition, where England will do battle against Ireland, Scotland and Wales.