By Peter Jackson
Over the last 20 years almost as many embryonic Lions have taken their first steps at what must be the most productive nursery in the British Isles. Every national schools’ body can lay claim to a galaxy of international names but none can have nurtured quite as many at such an early age as the junior group of the Welsh Schools’ Rugby Union. They have been rolling off their assembly line from the age of ten or eleven.
Naturally the majority are Welsh but not exclusively. England have also reaped a reward, massively so in the shape of the Vunipola brothers whose Grand Slam success on the wrong side of Offa’s Dyke begs the question as to how Wales allowed them to be spirited away from under their noses.
While that will remain a sore point for as long as they wear the Red Rose, the Welsh schools had also launched another English Lion off towards the stars long before Feao Vunipola signed for Pontypool and brought his two gigantic boys with him.
Nick Beal’s profile at primary school age was not so much low as subterranean and if that was only to be expected, then it was surprising that his exit proved to be every bit as far under the radar as his entrance. Had it not been for three winters’ exposure to rugby during his formative years, Beal’s sporting life may well have headed in a different direction.
“I’d never thought about rugby until we moved from Weston-super-Mare to live in Wales,” he says. “I was like any eight-year-old. I played a bit of football in the winter and a bit of cricket in the summer, never rugby.
“When my dad’s work took him to Cardiff we settled in Porthcawl and I went to school nearby at Nottage. At the primary school, rugby was the thing to do so I joined in.
“I remember one sports day when I was the quickest in the year. Then they put me up against the fastest boy in the year above me. I was taken from the classroom during a lesson and out into the playground.
“I won and they said: ‘Right, we’ve got a game next week and you’re playing. Get stuck in’. It must have gone ok because then I got chosen for the Bridgend team which included all the schools in the area with some really outstanding players like Rob Howley.
“Wherever we went, everyone was very passionate about the game. Rugby was everything and I was happy to be swept along. I remember watching the internationals and seeing the All Blacks train in Porthcawl which they used as their base for all the games in Wales.”
By the time he left Beal – or Nicholas Beale as they mis-spelt his name in the programme – had made a try-scoring debut at Cardiff Arms Park, for Bridgend under-11’s against their Cardiff counterparts for the DC Thomas Cup, a curtain-raiser to the 1982 Welsh Cup final.
His moment is captured on a 51-minute dvd made by the Welsh Schools RFU to mark 40 years of their junior group.
“When we moved back to England, I was lucky to go to another rugby school, RGS Wycombe. My time in Wales gave me a love for the game. Would I have got into it had we not moved there? Probably not.”
Nor would he have spent last Monday night joining the rest of the victorious Lions of 1997 for a reunion in honour of one of their own, Doddie Weir, the inimitable Scot who keeps winning legions of new admirers with his battle against Motor Neurone Disease.
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