NOT content with pushing hard during the last year to establish himself as an option in Edinburgh’s second-row, Marshall Sykes decided recently that he needed some non-rugby related variation in his life, so set out to become the capital’s answer to Willy Wonka.
The 21-year-old, along with girlfriend Lucy Fruin, has set up an online sweet store called ‘The Treat Plug’. It is early days, but the enterprise is going well, and Sykes is hopeful that it can continue to grow to eventually become a viable career path when his playing days finally come to an end.
“We were scheming how to get rich quick, so we thought we’d start punting some sweets,” he explains. “We’d been on Tik-Tok and seen that there are hundreds of these sweet companies, we knew someone who had started one and been really successful with it, and we realised that there wasn’t really one in Edinburgh, so we thought why not give it a crack.
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“We put a pretty small initial investment into it and said: let’s see how this goes? We brought in all these sweets for the lads – a couple of kilos – and that went down a treat. The boys dropped it into their stories, it went really well, the food bloggers got hold of it, and it just kicked on from there.
“We’ve got a website and you can either choose a pack that we’ve pre-made, or assemble your own – like a selection box – which we’ll make up and mail out to you.
“We’ve started trying to work with local rugby clubs as well, so Murrayfield Wanderers have just done a pack – we’ve got them picking up 22 bags of sweets tonight – and I’m going to contact a few more clubs, so if anyone wants to punt some sweets to their rugby club then please get in touch!”
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He is not the only budding entrepreneur in the Edinburgh squad. Pierre Schoeman spends much of his spare time supplying meat (sausage and biltong) through his ‘The Proper Pioneer’ business, George Taylor’s ‘UpNorth Biltong’ enterprise is now into its fourth year of trading, Hamish Watson has his ‘Rex Club’ headwear thing going on, while Damien Hoyland and Stuart McInally own and operate ‘Ruck Coffee’.
“Those guys have been really good,” Sykes adds. “I can just ask them questions about running a business. They are a bit older and wiser than me so that’s really helpful. And we’ve done a couple of little backhanders as well, swapping sweets for sausage.
“It has given me the chance to be something more than just ‘Marshall the rugby player’. I’d been feeling quite guilty about that the last couple of years – rugby has been so consuming that I wasn’t very interesting to speak to – but now this has given me that extra thing. I’m ‘Marshall the rugby player’ and ‘Marshall the guy who punts sweets’.
“It has been a real eye-opener. We’ve just moved flats and at the start we were quite slow at it, which meant we were up late trying to get everything done. So, we realised we had to get more efficient, and we’ve pumped quite a lot of money back into the business to get to the point now where we are now pretty efficient.
“It’s taught me a lot already and we’re still just at the baby-steps stage. If it is something I could scale up and do it on a larger scale around Scotland or the UK, that’s not bad as a back-up plan.”
Sykes is perhaps unaware that he is following in the footsteps of his head coach Richard Cockerill by dabbling in the confectionary supply industry. Back in his playing days, Cockerill had a nice little side-line going though a network of candy dispensers littered round Leicestershire, but he made the mistake of entrusting a young Jim Hamilton to run things while he was away playing for Clermont for two seasons between 2002 and 2004. It didn’t go well, with more sweets being consumed by Hamilton and his Leicester team-mates than by paying punters.
“I made an absolute disaster of it,” admitted Hamilton many years later. “Cockers came back from France and asked how the business was going, I said I hadn’t seen those machines in about a year, so he wasn’t too happy with me.”
Sykes will be hoping to keep a tighter control of his business, although he does admit that his own sweet tooth is a risk. “We’ve gone from having around 50kilos of sweets to 200 or 300 kilos in stock, so it’s quite dangerous,” he chuckles. “We’re going to have to put a lock and key on it in the flat.”
Rugby, of course, remains the priority – and after a long season of limited game time since transferring from an academy contract at Glasgow Warriors to a full-time deal with Edinburgh last summer, Sykes is understandably delighted to have been given a run of games during this Rainbow Cup campaign.
He has not looked out of place during the three starts and one bench appearance he has had in the capital club’s last four outings and is hopeful of getting one last chance to test himself at this level in Edinburgh’s final game of the 2020-21 campaign away to Scarlets on Sunday.
“It’s been a step up but the bit I’m happy with is the fact I’m starting to see improvements in myself,” he says. “It’s a bit of a bummer that it’s coming to an end when I’m playing more but it gives me time to get refreshed and get myself in good nick in pre-season.”
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