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Falcons rugby legend kick-starts University scholarship programme

15 October 2021

Newcastle University’s new cohort of sports scholars began their journey to elite performance on Sunday - and were sent on their way by former Falcons, England and British Lions rugby legend Tony Underwood.

Newcastle welcomed over 160 top athletes from around the world, the University’s highest-ever sports scholar intake. The student athletes were welcomed by Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Chris Day, while Tony Underwood delivered the keynote address.

Having won 27 England caps and toured twice with the British Lions, Tony Underwood arrived at Tyneside in the late ‘90s to join the squad that took Sir John Hall’s dream team to the top of the English Premiership at their first attempt. When injury ended his career, Tony joined Easyjet as a pilot and eventually became an A380 Captain with Emirates. When his fleet was grounded by the pandemic last year, he was made redundant and turned his attention to resilience and mental wellbeing coaching with the launch of his Wordplay consultancy.

Having endured such turbulence and turmoil in their training regimes and competition schedules, sport scholars need help to develop resilience and mental wellbeing. In his keynote speech to the athletes Tony shared the belief system and coping strategies that have enabled him to survive both successes and failures.

“I’m not here today to try and impress you, but in the hope that I can inspire you,” he said. “I’ve had a life packed with privilege, but none of my achievements define the person I am today. I’m just a regular bloke who was exposed to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and had to learn to endure and recover.

“Once we’ve grasped what we can and can’t control, understood how to positively reframe setbacks, appreciated the need to get talking to others, and committed to tackle environments that inhibit rather than nurture us, we can bounce back better not bitter.”

Newcastle University Performance Sport Manager Fraser Kennedy said: “This is such an exciting time for our scholars and after a difficult year it was important to give them encouragement and reinforce their belief that all their goals are achievable with the right mindset and attitude. Hearing Tony’s inspirational story was the perfect launchpad for what we hope will be a career packed with achievement.”

Sports scholars receive funding towards the development of their skills and vitality, and athletes must have won representative honours at national or regional level during the preceding 12 months to qualify.

Among them is Alfie Johnson, a second-year Economics undergraduate student from Guildford, Surrey, who started playing before he turned five. Alfie, 20, who is part of the University Rugby Union programme and England Sevens, said: “It’s absolutely great to be starting to play again this year. The challenge following last year is to get my body used to the intensity again, to get my body used to recover quickly after games. I look forward to getting in this rhythm again and playing alongside my studies. Being an athlete helps me academically too, it gives me structure and helps me plan my time.”

The Performance Sport Programme at Newcastle University has developed into one of the very best in the UK, as evidenced by four consecutive top ten BUCS finishes prior to the pandemic.