BRADFORD GS have been playing rugby for 140 years now – their first game was against Wakefield GS in 1880 – and throughout that time there have probably been more highs than lows in their history.
Always a force to be reckoned with within Yorkshire and the northern circuit, at various times they have emerged as a massive power in the land.
Among their notable pioneers were Arthur Cockerham, who won an England cap in 1900, and Francis Steinhal who was twice capped by England in 1913, while more recently Roger Shackleton won England caps at fly-half and Tim O’Brien made the headlines by playing in four consecutive Varsity matches – first for Cambridge in 1981 and 1982 followed by two for Oxford in 1983 and 1984.
The high point of rugby at the school unquestionably came under the coaching directorship of Geoff Wappett in the 80s and 90s when, on more than one occasion, the school could claim to be the strongest in England and possibly Britain.
Wappett, an unapologetic rugby tragic who lived for rugby, moulded his approach to the game while playing under the legendary Jim Greenwood at Loughborough University where he was a footballing No.8 and captained English Universities before injury struck.
Among the lessons learned was to adapt the game plan applicable to the available talent, stay flexible in your approach and be 20 per cent fitter than the opposition. Oh and enjoy yourself.
Wappett arrived from their great northern rivals Mount St Mary’s Sheffield where he had also enjoyed much success and the annual no-holds-barred showdowns between those northern powerhouses – Mounts were coached by another noted Loughborough graduate and contemporary in Ged Glynn – became a highlight of the season for a decade or more.
The first great flexing of Bradford muscles produced a remarkable run of 55 unbeaten games that encompassed the end of the 1985-86 season, the entirety of the next two seasons and then the first game of the 1988-89 season. Of the 55 games, they won 52, drew three, scored 1,683 points and conceded 251 giving an average score line of 30-4.
During that period no fewer than 14 Bradford GS players represent Yorkshire U18 Group – also coached by Wappett – with Alex Munroe, Justin Priestley, Jonathan Mitchell and Stephen Ravenscroft going on to win England Schools honours. Ravenscroft subsequently enjoyed a considerable club career and won a couple of full caps.
Although the run incorporated a tour of California and one or two less taxing fixtures it should be noted that the likes of Sedbergh, QEGS Wakefield, Cowley HS, Arnold, RGS Newcastle, Royal School Dungannon, RBAI Belfast and many other stellar names on the schools circuit were dismissed with panache. The team of 1987-88 especially would have a strong claim to being one of the best schools sides ever seen in England.
The second great era of Bradford dominance came in the early 1990s by which time the Daily Mail Cup was up and running and an ambitious school side could go in search of tangible reward in terms of silverware.
As is often the case it all started with the emergence of an outstanding year group down the school that carried all before them at U13 and U14 level which encouraged Bradford to enter them for the Daily Mail U15 Cup in the 1989-90 season. They swept all before them, marching to the final when they turned on the power to beat King Edward’s Lytham at Twickenham in a final that BBC Rugby Special covered extensively.
Having got the taste, that year group – led by the likes of England Schools players Jonathan Ions, Nick Miller, Simon Binns and Rob Ashforth – continued on the rampage in the senior school when they got two shots at the Daily Mail U18 Trophy. And emerged triumphant in both.
In 1992 Mount St Mary’s – whom they had scraped past in a tough regular season game just two weeks earlier – beat the old enemy in a cracking Twickenham final but 12 months on it was showtime. Bradford were on an unstoppable roll – hungry proven winners – and RGS Guildford were the unfortunate team to meet them in the 1993 final. They were hammered 75-17 in what still ranks as one of the finest ever displays by an English schools team.
That team from the 91-92 season also won three separate tournaments including the St Joseph’s festival, where they accounted for St Brendan, Warwick, Campion, Merchiston Castle, Trent College, St Joseph’s and Felsted, conceding just 20 points en route to the title. Their only defeat in the entire season came straight after the Christmas break when, without most of their first choice backs, they slipped to a 9-7 home defeat against a very good QEGS Wakefield side, a reverse that soon had the side refocussing for the challenges ahead.
Wappett went on to be an outstandingly successful England schools coach, leading them to a triumphant tour of Australia, also coached Rotherham and Macclesfield and established a rugby academy at Brighton College. That Bradford side though was special as he explained to me on one occasion.
“They were obviously an extremely talented, hardworking bunch and a fair few went on to enjoy very decent club careers but they weren’t necessarily a team of superstars. We had a handful of schools caps but there were no big hitters who made it all the way through to the England senior team.
“What they did have more than any team I was ever involved with was the ability to raise their game and simply play better and better – to produce their A game – the tougher the challenge and the more formidable the opponents. They were completely undaunted.
“They loved the pressure, there was a great camaraderie amongst the group off the back of some brilliant tours, and were well led by Jonathan Ions and just loved winning. As a coach you couldn’t really ask for much more!”
Just missing out on those halcyon seasons, but also coming under the influence of Wappett as they developed as rugby players were the two biggest rugby names Bradford have produced in England fly-half and points machine Charlie Hodgson and powerhouse wing Dan Scarborough.
Both starred in the school XV before turning professional and since 2013 Scarborough has been back coaching the side with another good crop seemingly in residence. Last season they won 15 of their 19 games and recorded notable wins over Stonyhurst, Ampleforth, Durham and QEGS Wakefield. Although at senior club level Yorkshire rugby has experienced a worrying slump the raw material from its great rugby schools is still clearly there.