Schoolboy Rugby – The Road To Greatness
Did you ever play?
It’s a question most men get asked at some point during their lives, either on a touchline supporting their children or in a pub with a pint in hand watching an international. The reply I’ve heard many times is something along the lines of “yeah… I played at school… I was quite handy… but then it got a bit too physical for me/I got an injury… and I gave it up”. But if you stop and really think hard, you’ll often be surprised at who you actually played with or against during those cherished schoolboy years.
Today’s professional players are unlikely to remember your name, or even realise that they shared a pitch with you for 80 minutes. But there’s something nostalgic about recounting the players you locked horns with back in the day. Perhaps it’s just the rugby anorak that I am but there’s a few that stick in the memory for me:
Mike Brown (Harlequins & England)
Growing up playing for my local side Chippenham RFC, our big Wiltshire youth derby was against Melksham. The pre-match chat from our coaches always followed a similar theme; “Don’t give away any penalties in your own half, as their fly half can slot them from anywhere”, or “If you can stop their 10 from playing we’ll win the game”. The talented fly-half in question, was of course Mike Brown, now England’s most capped fullback.
I also recall playing in the same side as him at county level and one game in particular stands out, but not for the quality of the rugby. On a winter’s evening under floodlights, all 15 of our players were on the pitch and ready to kick off, except that our coaches hadn’t turned up and neither had our match shirts! We started the game looking like a right rabble in mixed shirts and training tops. Around 5 minutes in, play was stopped as our coaches had finally managed to navigate the Bournemouth traffic, they pulled up on the sideline and hurriedly handed out our shirts, so the match could continue. While the rest of us were all flustered at the interruption, it didn’t seem to affect Mike’s mindset as I recall him scoring all of our points and winning the game for us!
James Haskell (Wasps, England & Lions)
One year our rugby-mad PE teacher, Mr Passenger, entered Devizes comprehensive school into the famous Rosslyn Park Sevens tournament. As most of our team consisted of footballers, who were pushed into playing by the carrot of getting out of lessons and going to London, we were sure to be out of our depth!
However, the prospect of an afternoon scoring plenty of tries helped to build the excitement. As the day came closer and the groups were chosen, we were anxious to find out who we’d been drawn against. It was just our luck that it was the prestigious rugby school, Wellington College. Running to script, we got absolutely hammered and in our post-match debrief, Mr Passenger singled me out for missing a tackle which led to one of many tries.
Naturally, Wellington went on to win the tournament and years later I stumbled across a programme which included the squad photo of that year’s winning team. The side included James Haskell and the Evans brothers, Max and Thom, of Scottish international fame. No doubt it was Haskell at full tilt who plowed through my attempted tackle to score, so if you’re reading this Mr Passenger – I hope you can forgive me for missing that one!
Dave Ward (Harlequins)
By the time I reached Colts level at Chippenham RFC, we had a very good side and some of my best rugby memories were with this team. But every once in a while, even the mighty Chippenham had to call upon the cavalry – Dave Ward was one of those who we brought out for the ‘big games’. ‘Wardy’ as we called him, was incredibly strong and powerful even back then. In a county cup semi final he collected the ball in our 22 and literally steam rolled through what seemed like the whole opposing fifteen. He continued his run down the length of the field to score.
Millfield 1st XV -Who can you spot?!
Perhaps the best example I can give of a schoolboy team progressing onto great things, is the Millfield 1st XV that my younger brother Luke was part of. Of course, Millfield has a history of producing talented players – Chris Robshaw, Anthony Allen and the great Gareth Edwards to name but a few. But Luke’s side must be up there with one of the best, considering the heights that many of the team subsequently reached.
In the front-row, they had Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England & Lions) and Henry Thomas (Bath & England). Backing them up in the second row was Rhys Ruddock (Leinster & Ireland) their captain. On the flank was Marco Mama (Worcester & Bristol), with Chris Cook (Bath) at scrum half. Luke steered things from fly half, but he wasn’t short of gas outside him, as at centre he had Ben Mosses (Bristol) and Jonathan Joseph (Bath, England & Lions), with Ollie Lindsay-Hague (England and Great Britain Sevens) at full back. Quite a side indeed!
As always, the school season culminated at the Rosslyn Park tournament, where I had the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t long before the side started showcasing their talent, as they coasted through the group stages to the finals. Ollie Lindsay-Hague was side-stepping people for fun and when we watched JJ glide past defenders in that Guscott-esque style of his, my Dad and I turned to each other and said “He’ll definitely play for England one day”. I’m not afraid to say that, these days when I see JJ replicating those gliding runs for Bath and England, I smugly think back to that moment on the Rosslyn Park touchline and the prediction we both made.
Needless to say, Millfield won the tournament and as the late Andy Ripley presented them with their trophy, he remarked at how this was one of the best schoolboy sides he’d ever seen. Quite a compliment from such a great player himself!
I certainly envy my brother for having the opportunity to have played in such a talented school side, but it just goes to show how the opportunities and experiences of schoolboy rugby can help to mould players into great professionals. For those like myself who didn’t get the chance to play in such a side, at least I can cast my mind back to when I played on the same pitches as just a few of these top players. Whilst they’ll never remember playing against the likes of me at the grass roots of the game, I’d like to think that as they step out onto the hallowed turfs of the world’s top stadiums, that they look back at their distinguished careers and think about the part their schoolboy rugby played in getting them there.