Balancing life as a professional athlete while achieving a tertiary qualification is no easy feat.
Many present and former Newcastle Knights can testify to the the challenges of hitting the books while forging a career in the NRL.
Now with the launch of the Graduates of League Program, that sees a close partnership between the Newcastle Knights and the University of Newcastle, additional support will be provided for players studying at the University.
Now more than ever has emphasis been placed by the Club and the NRL on developing players on and off the field and encouraging young men to prepare for life beyond league.
Knights forward Robbie Rochow is in his third year of a Bachelor of Civil Engineering at the University of Newcastle and has experienced a marked difference in the level of support he’s received since the Graduates of League Program was introduced this year.
“It’s been a positive for me," he said.
“They’ve provided me with a tutor that I contact all the time.
“He helps me with a lot of the work that I miss and with the assessment tasks I have.
“I’ve always done it all by myself and just ticked away and worked it out, but now I’m actually receiving a lot of help from the Club and the Graduates of League program."
Rochow understands the reality of his sport and that preparing for life after football is important.
“Everyone understands that, but it’s a matter of actually doing something about it,” he said.
The 23-year-old begun his course before he took to playing league professionally.
“Even in my breaks when I get a bit of time, it’s good to just focus on something else," Rochow said.
“I think it’s a healthy balance for me.”
The Graduates of League Program aims to not only enrol students in University, but retain them and see players complete their course.
Knights CEO, Matt Gidley has studied at the University himself and believes the program will create strong career pathways post football.
“This is an opportunity for us to partner with another great Newcastle team- the University of Newcastle,” he said.
“It will be a tailored program with flexibility on timetabling, support networks and subsidies on fees.”
The CEO knows first hand the challenges associated with balancing study and football commitments.
He reflected on his playing career, when he was also tackling a university course at the same time.
Gidley recalls playing a State of Origin game and thinking during half time about studying for a uni exam he had the next day.
“Studying and holding down a career is challenging not only for league players but for anyone who is trying to raise a family or build a career," he said.
“It’s quite clear that not all players can have long NRL careers, and the ones that do, still have to do something beyond their NRL playing days.”
He also testified to the university’s strong support network and believes the partnership will provide a wonderful environment for players to grow.
“Our Club has a real focus on education," Gidley admitted.
“The players who come into our Club are able to achieve and access educational opportunities.
“When they leave our Club, they can move into the next phase of their life and will have the proper skills to take up a career somewhere else."
Deputy Vice Chancellor, (Academic) Professor Andrew Parfitt said the University is proud to be involved in the important investment in players’ future.
“We were really keen to be part of this program and are excited about the future of the program,” he said during the gala launch event at the University on Wednesday.
“We really want to help them both enter university and then to succeed when they’re at university.
“By wrapping around some support through extra tutorials, we hope that will actually improve the chances of them being able to complete their degrees.
“The support comes in the form of a peer support exercise where the we assign student that have been through the program who know the material not only to help them with the content of the course but also to navigate the complexities of study and balancing life."
NRL Education and Welfare Manager, Paul Heptonstall explained the NRL has backed the program and has invested heavily into welfare and education across the game.
“One of things we’ve (NRL) really tried to measure is these off-field achievements that players are engaged in,” he said.
Heptonstall also acknowledged that the playing careers of rugby league players are often relatively short.
“We also find that if the players have got more balance in their life they actually enjoy their football more, and adhoc, we know that their careers will generally be long and they play better,” he said.
He beleives the relationship between the Knights and the university is just vital. Being a one-team town, it’s so important that they engage with local providers.
“They are both well respected institutions,” he added.
Mark Sargent is one of the NRL’s study success stories. Not only has the former Knight represented NSW and the Country but has earned a PHD.
He first kicked off his studying career at the University of Newcastle in 1990.
Although his studies were interrupted at times by football, particularly when he was selected in the Australian Kangaroos, his commitment to his education has secured his current role as an academic working at the University of Newcastle.
“It’s been successful and challenging, but the rewards are there if you’re prepared to knuckle down,” he said.
Sargent believes the additional support networks will benefit the students.
“It’s been a long-term project for the Club to arrange this sort of thinking and these opportunities," he said.
"It’s a credit to the Club and the NRL that they’ve been able to put this program together and roll it out to Clubs.
"In the long run the players are going to be enormously benefitted by it."