A YOUNG North Yorkshire rugby union player has signed his first professional contract to ascend the league structure, Grace Newton.

Tom Francis, 19, was plying his trade from the bench for North One East outfit Malton & Norton as recently as December – but just two months later he has penned a deal with Championship side Doncaster Knights, four divisions above the North Yorkshire club in the national pyramid.

Tight-head prop Francis, a former Ampleforth College pupil, is now helping Doncaster in their bid to gain promotion to the elite Aviva Premiership, and has gone from playing amateur games in front of around 200 locals at The Gannock to appearing before 4,000 fans when his new club took on Bristol last month.

He will combine his professional career with his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds, and has already seen his lifestyle change dramatically since joining the full-time players at the South Yorkshire side’s Castle Park base.

The youngster played for hometown club Malton & Norton from the age of four, but was identified as having huge potential by Doncaster player and former England under-19 captain Andy Boyde while playing student rugby for his university team.

Yorkshire U20 star Francis was the youngest player to start in Doncaster’s promotion play-off clash with London Welsh last weekend, and put in an outstanding performance which could see him claim the number 3 shirt for the rest of the season over two more experienced props.

“The Championship is a much faster league than the level I was playing at before.

“The professional set-up at Doncaster is so different to university rugby. I’m learning a lot from the experienced players about my fitness and conditioning as well as about my game,” said the teenager.

Francis, who weighs in at 140 kilogrammes, faces a challenge to slim down and build up his fitness levels to the standards of a Championship player, and has already had to cut down on boozy student nights out.

“It’s hard to combine studying with training three days a week and doing a lot of extra gym sessions. My social life has taken a knock. But it’s worth it for this opportunity.”

Malton & Norton club secretary Bill Laidler has seen Francis progress through the ranks at the club and has been keeping on eye on the young player’s development.

He said: “Tom played for all our youth teams from a very young age and didn’t actually make a first team appearance until this season. He’s very strong and mobile for a prop, although he is a big unit.”

The front-row forward’s father Rick, who runs a local haulage business, has been a long-time supporter of the club and the family are well-known among Malton’s rugby community.

Added Laidler: “He’s a good local lad and playing for Doncaster is a great chance for him.

“This is the highest level a former Malton & Norton player has gone on to play at in a quite a long time.”