When Bede Academy opened offering rugby as the main sport for boys – and no football – doubters questioned whether it would work.
Sarah French finds, however, that the school has scored, not just with its students but also local clubs that are benefiting from its young talent and soon sixth formers from across the region.
It may be in the same town as famous club Blyth Spartans and just 13 miles from St James’s Park, but there was never any question of boys kicking a round ball in PE lessons at Bede Academy.
Rugby union was to be its principal game for boys when it opened in 2009, despite the sceptics who said youngsters would not be interested.
Seven years on, it remains the case that many boys never encounter rugby until they get to Bede North, the secondary school of the 3-19 academy, despite the town also having a successful rugby club. Football remains the dominant religion.
Bede encountered the same scepticism as other schools in the Emmanuel Schools Foundation (ESF) - Emmanuel College, in Gateshead, and The King’s Academy, in Coulby Newham, Middlesbrough, both favouring rugby despite being in areas dominated by football.
Only Trinity Academy, at Thorne, was welcomed for its emphasis on the oval ball, being located next to a rugby union club.
However, whether it’s the camaraderie, the competition or the chance to spend 80 minutes running at each other, by Year 8 many Bede boys are hooked, appreciating how, whatever their build or ability, skills or speed, there can be a place for them in rugby.
Principal Gwyneth Evans explains: “We see rugby as a more inclusive, universal game that all boys can enjoy. It recognises that boys develop at different stages and has the flexibility to allow them to change positions if necessary as they grow.
“It also teaches them how to appreciate the different skills and abilities within the team, the discipline of training and practice, and the understanding of strategy and the appreciation of complex rules, all of which can support their learning across many other subjects. Building character is at the heart of what we do and rugby certainly supports that.”
As rugby has grown at Bede - every year group has its own competitive squad with at least one fifth of all boys playing matches on a regular basis - clubs have begun the take notice.
Leading the charge is Tom Marshall, a 6ft 2ins 16-year-old number eight, who is already in the Newcastle Falcons Academy.
Two more boys, Luke Giles, 15, and Ryan Hull, 14, are also putting in eye-catching displays.
Other winter sports on offer include basketball, volleyball, fitness, trampolining, indoor rowing and cross country, while summer is given over to athletics, cricket and tennis.
Head of rugby at Bede, Andrew Sutherland, who played seniors for Northern, Morpeth and Blyth, said: “The boys have a lot of opportunities to play football outside school, and many do.
“It’s good for them to play different sports.
“Not doing football in the academy certainly doesn’t put people off from coming here; the most important thing is the academic side and we do that very well.”