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Academic practice in a league of its own

Every time Mike Rush tucks his children in to bed he gets a reminder from those he cares for most about the level of his commitment to his job.

Paul Wellens - now in his 14th season - is one of many lifers at St Helens, and a former winner of the Man of Steel award. Picture: Getty Images
Paul Wellens - now in his 14th season - is one of many lifers at St Helens, and a former winner of the Man of Steel award. Picture: Getty Images

"It's a bit cheesy but it's funny and I don't mind you printing it. I say to all my kids every night when they're going to bed 'Night, night, God bless, love you lots like jelly tots,' and the kids always reply: 'And rugby league!'," says the St Helens chief executive.

He relates this by way of admitting that he spends too much time at his workplace, such is his passion for his hometown club, but also because he clearly believes his family life is much more fulfilled because of, rather than in spite of, that. "It's all they've ever known, but has it been good for the family? Of course it has," Rush says.

"My little lad could not buy some of the experiences he's had, the girls love it, my wife works at the club - I met her at the club - so I wouldn't have the family I've got without the club."

That perhaps helps explain why the former scrum-half, whose Dumfries-born grandparents on his mother's side allowed him to represent Scotland at the 1995 Emerging Nations World Cup, is as protective as he is of his environment.

He admits he is not a great believer in exchanging information with other sports organisations, while he said that only one other journalist had previously had access to the club's inner sanctum.

Yet, as an interviewee and sharer of information, Rush is a natural, frequently asking himself questions, then launching into an explanation of how an environment that produces so many high-class rugby players has been created.

"Where's that come from? Every single guy in that office next to us is St Helens born and bred, which develops a culture which understands the club," he said.

"Are they all the best in their field? I would probably say they are. Has a lot of that been developed while they've been here? Yes.

"I'm a Man United fan but it has taken a little bit of the ethos from the old boot-room at Liverpool that, if you invest in your coaches and invest time and money into them, then you'll get them up to any standard that they're willing to grow to with you. Most of ours have grown with us phenomenally."

Rush spent 13 years running the club's academy then, following an emergency spell as first team head coach last year, was promoted to chief executive as the board recognised the benefits to be gained from his intimate knowledge of every aspect of the club.

He believes that he and all the members of his development team could have cashed in heavily by taking their knowledge further afield, but feels all concerned are more than satisfied with the rewards generated.

"James Graham played for us for eight seasons and was Man of Steel [Super League's player of the year award]; Paul Wellens is into his 14th season, Man of Steel; James Roby, 10th season, celebrating his testimonial, Man of Steel; Paul Sculthorpe 12 years, two-time Man of Steel; Sean Long, 10 years, Man of Steel; Keiron Cunningham, 500 career games," Rush lists.

"Every single one of them, bar Scully [Sculthorpe] who we brought from Warrington [all of 11 miles away], has been a product of our pathway. Now, in our current top squad of 30 alone, 17 or 18 are homegrown."

This happens in spite of heavy restrictions from both geography - St Helens' population is 120,000 - and Rugby Football League rules relating to academy numbers: officially a maximum of 20 at under-18 level that they stretch to around 30.

Of those, around 10 a year - that's a remarkable ratio - go on to play a minimum of 10 games at Super League level, which is why Rush cannot help but wonder what they could achieve if they were fishing in bigger pools.

"With the number of people Scotland has got, we would produce far more players" is his belief, although he sees Ireland as leading the way in player development among the home unions.

"One of the only few jobs I would have left here for would have been to go to one of the governing bodies to have a crack at trying to improve rugby union. For me rugby union is still the closest thing to our game but the natural progression would have been [to be involved] at governing body level.

"I have a friend who is involved in the legal side with Welsh Rugby Union. You look at the turmoil there and you'd love to grab hold of it and shake it up and say you can battle all you want at boardroom level, it doesn't affect what goes on down here.

"I have said that to my chairman. I just think it's a massive, massive untapped pool of talent and, to this day, even England are getting a fraction of what they could out of it."

As he contemplated how he would go about replicating what feels like a culture that is unique to a single club, there was resonance with the message relayed by Frank Hadden, the former Scotland head coach, regarding the need to utilise local knowledge.

"If I dropped myself into Barcelona, I'd surround yourself with people who cared about Barcelona," said Rush. "The person at the top maybe doesn't have to have that same feeling as long as all the foot soldiers on the bottom have the absolute heart and drive to make it succeed.

"Because you've lived it once and you know the pitfalls, you know deep down the honest mistakes that you've made and you know the things that have worked; you just have to think when you're making a decision: 'if this was Saints what would I do?'

"I could go and work somewhere else and any of the staff here could do that and better themselves financially, as long as they remember with every decision they made: 'would I do that to the club that I love?' Would I treat the people underneath at the club I love like that?"

Rush certainly seems to know how to ask the right questions and, far more often than not, comes up with the right answers.

For all that his first instinct is not to share those solutions with anyone outside of St Helens, he says the things they do at St Helens are merely "common sense", before adding an exceedingly apt caveat.

"Our accountant thinks P&L sheets are common sense but, when he brings them to me, I tell him I'll take two days to look at them and work things out," he said.

The point is well made but sometimes, too, common sense is just that. By using local knowledge to make best use of limited resources in order to be competitive in an elite environment, it seems there is much that others can readily learn from the work being done by this home-loving former Scottish internationalist.

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