The Cheltenham school turning pupils into rugby internationals under the helm of former Gloucester Rugby player Olly Morgan

Cheltenham College is a breeding ground for professional rugby players. Ollie Thorley, Jack Clement, Tom Stanton, Louis Hillman-Cooper and Seb Blake. The list is almost endless and this is just to name a few of the alumni who have gone on to get a professional rugby contract.

Located in the centre of Cheltenham, the school offers pupils the perfect set up with around 12 hours of rugby per week that includes, analysis, strength and conditioning, 1 to 1 mentoring, individual skills, team training, match day and recovery. This is all fitted around the academic and co curricular schedule which presents a mixed, well rounded education. 

Much of Cheltenham College’s success as a rugby programme is due to their Director of Rugby, Olly Morgan. The former Gloucester and England player had his career cut short due to injury but has found something he is equally passionate about. Bringing through the next crop of talent. 

It is not unheard of for a school to produce so much talent, but to consistently get young players achieving their goals is impressive. Morgan thinks he knows why his programme is unique. 

“There are coaches involved in the programme who have been through the school/professional pathway which allows for personal understanding and compassion,” Morgan said. “We’ve got myself, Nick Runciman who’s a former Gloucester player, Lucas Slowik who’s a former Bristol player and Dan Murphy who has a number of Premiership appearances with Gloucester, London Irish and Harlequins.

“All four of us had to retire at different stages in our professional careers so we’ve got that experience to be able to share with pupils so we can balance all the different aspects of school life. Ultimately they need to make sure that they get quality A-levels and GCSEs and manage that workload that school gives them.”

Recently, Ollie Thorley has taken the rugby world by storm. He has been training in Eddie Jones’ Autumn Nations Cup squad and made his debut for England in their final game of the Six Nations a few weeks ago. It was clear to see he was destined for greatness from a young age. 

“It’s fantastic what he’s achieved but it is a little bit expected,” said the former fullback. “The impact he had on the school and the performances that he put together, he was one of the very few boys here to play first team rugby in fifth form. 

Ollie was just an absolute freak in terms of his genetics. Physically, his speed, there wasn’t anyone on our fixture list, which possess some of the best schools in the country, that could match him and as a result he was a game winner. He was destined for professional sport.”

Having gone through the transition from school to professional rugby himself at Millfield, Morgan knows what it takes and can identify the players who will make it from a young age. 

Louis Hillman-Cooper, Seb Blake, Tom Stanton, Jack Clement, all the guys who have gone on to get professional contracts have played first team rugby in the fifth form,” he said. “It shows the quality of the player in how rare it is and that these guys are setting the bar very high.

I’ve done the transition myself and I’ve obviously seen it having been involved in the programme. The guys who tend to make it nowadays are the guys who are willing to work the hardest and ultimately be physically ready.”

Many of the players are able to balance their rugby with academic studies and achieve impressive grades at A-Level. It is often the top players who also excel in the classroom and this is the case for many of the players from Cheltenham College who have made it as pro rugby players. 

Thorley was naturally very bright,” Morgan said. “Playing rugby is really important but school is about education and getting the best grades possible. Ollie Thorley had what I would say was the perfect model. He had three As at A-Level, was an Oxbridge candidate and then got a professional contract on the other table. It’s also important to champion our ‘value added’ approach as not everyone has the academic prowess that Ollie did but with the support network here at College, everyone can achieve something’. 

“Jack Clement was very similar. It didn’t come as naturally to him but he got three As as well so if rugby packs in, he’s got quality A-Levels and can go to a top university. 

“96% of players don’t make it. My big passion is to provide a love for the sport where people carry on playing after school and playing in different ways. Club rugby, university rugby, some professionals. They continue to play because they have a love for it.” 

Clement is one of the more recent products to come out of the school and has made a number of appearances for Gloucester Rugby and was called up to the England training squad. He is someone who shone and made it thanks to his hard work. 

“These guys have all been through our programme for a number of years and I think with someone like Jack, he’s obviously a very talented sportsman,” Morgan said. “He’s probably more talented than Ollie in terms of different sports. He was a fantastic footballer, cricketer, he played a little bit of hockey. He just embraced what was here and played a number of different sports. He was a late developer, wasn’t even in the academy until U17. I said to Richard Whiffin, who was head of the Gloucester academy at the time, ‘you need to have a look at this guy, he’s quality!’ The rest is history.” 

Success helps breed more success and having seen so many players go and at play professional sport, more pupils are inspired and see that it is possible for them to make it as well. This helps the school’s production line and they have pupils come to the school purely because of the success of some of their former students. 

“We get people joining the school who see and want to go where Ollie Thorley’s gone or do what Louis Hilman-Cooper and Jack Clement have done. That’s the beauty about it. The pathway from such a young age at the prep school, all the way through to the senior school, you can’t dress that down any more. 

“It’s a guy coming into a program at a young age who has done various different sports and has been challenged in different ways and he’s developed into a very capable rugby player who goes on to get a contract.” 

The formula is simple but executed to perfection. Cheltenham College have a great set up and will continue to produce professional rugby players. The question is, who’s going to be the next Ollie Thorley? 

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