What makes a great schools rugby team? And which were the best ever school XVs? Two perennial questions that always enliven a clubhouse beer or three. Trying to compare different eras and different schools circuits is not easy, although of course that only heightens the passionate debate.
It should be easier these days. Only this month the RFU launched the Schools Champions Knock-out Cup for one-term schools, the NatWest Cup continues to go from strength to strength and the Daily Mail Trophy is a season-long Merit Table the like of which the clubs used to adopt before professional leagues.
Never has schools rugby been more quantifiable but that still doesn’t provide any answers to the science and art of producing historically great schools XVs.
For enlightenment let’s talk first with Ray French from the state sector, a dual Union and League Test player, but also the English and Latin teacher who produced decades of outstanding Union sides at Cowley HS in St Helens.
From 1979 to 1981 his 1st XV won 55 matches on the bounce – all those involved have got a tie to mark the achievement – and didn’t concede a try for over two seasons. And he doesn’t even consider that this era was his best ever team.
“In my experience the most important team at any school, or of equal importance to the 1st XV, is always the U12s and you must always have one of your best masters in charge,” insists French. “That is where you first instil a love of the game, the basic skills, and where you give them dream and the pride. Make them believe they are involved in something very special, because they are.
“It’s not so easy these days. Cowley for example is on two sites now, the 11-16-year-olds and a Sixth Form College where if a pupil hasn’t got lessons on a Monday mornings they don’t have to come in.
“When I was teaching I would walk around the quad before assembly and between lessons on a Monday morning and catch most of the lads for a quick word about how Saturday went and remind them there was a training session at 12.30 after first-sitting lunch. We all lived and breathed rugby and that togetherness and collective spirit is vital.
“As a school 1st XV coach the most important thing is to realistically assess your talent pool. Up in a Rugby League heartland we had young backs growing on trees and even up front we had forwards who could run and dummy all afternoon. What I had to concentrate on – always – was the set-pieces and tight play because that potentially was our weakness. If we had 50 per cent possession I’d back us to beat anybody.
“That 55 team, as I call them, was very good. We toured Australia at the end of that era and were unbeaten as well despite one school fielding their Old Boys which was a compliment I suppose. We could defend really well but frankly there wasn’t much need because we were attacking 90 per cent of the time. The old saying about attack being the best form of defence is absolutely sound.
“That team had six or seven England schoolboys – Gary Muldoon, Warren Joyce, Norman Pickavance, Marcus Taylor, Ian Aspinall, David Roy, Tony Simpson – but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was our best team. Some of our unbeaten teams in the Sixties and Seventies were right up there with the likes of Dave Gullick, Mick Burke, Ian Ball, John Horton, Nigel Yates and others.
“The best school team I ever encountered? Reigate GS were right up there, we had a long run of great matches against them and it was all the more interesting because we represented very different circuits, North West and South East. Locally St Edward’s Liverpool could be very classy and our local rivals West Park, just down the road was often a good contest.
“There used to be huge interest in some of our games. It would be nothing in Seventies against Reigate or one of the local teams to get £500 in a bucket collection towards our next rugby tour.”
That number 55 crops up again down at Wellington College (Berks) who are often formidable but enjoyed a wonderful purple patch between 1999-2002 when they reeled off 55 straight wins on a very tough circuit that includes most of England’s big “Public” schools.
That was the era when they were also untouchable in the Festival section of the Rosslyn Park national Schoolboy Sevens while they were also unbeaten on a tour of New Zealand. 2001 was probably the summit with a team including James Haskell, Thom and Max Evans, Paul Doran Jones, and Adrian Jarvis.
Wellington’s then MiC and coach Ken Hopkins recalls: “When I took over in 1997 – and I had been helping with teams down the school for 12 years – we had actually endured a couple of poor seasons so to a certain extent I had to pick up the pieces.
“And the way to do that is start at square one and just become competitive again.
“One of the big advantages at a school like Wellington, with the lads on site if you like, is time and resources. The school had video equipment so I wanted it used for match analysis and put somebody in charge of that. I got a fitness specialist to do our conditioning and I asked Scotland and Quins lock Bill Cuthbertson to help out with our forwards. No half measures. We took a professional approach.
“A typical week would be: play Saturday, video analysis put together on Sunday for the team to look at Monday lunchtime. That would be followed by a real hard fitness session on the Monday night with some skills as well. Tuesday we would train, Thursday we would train, Friday a light skills session and then Saturday would be match day.
“If we played badly, we trained twice as hard the next week. Those Monday night sessions could be very tough indeed. If things weren’t going well at half-time at the game on Saturday sometimes all I had to say was, ‘look out Monday boys’, and usually there would be a marked improvement in the second half.
“The boys loved their rugby and from an early stage some of them were driven by a desire to play professionally. They were a new breed. Haskell would train every day on his own as well, he used a personal trainer. Good on him was my attitude. Making Haskell captain was the easiest decision I ever had to make.
“But it’s a funny thing schools rugby. One of my last teams – in 2003 – were not as naturally talented as their predecessors yet ended up unbeaten at 15s and took the Sevens as well. They trained even harder because they felt they had a reputation to live up to and they recognised they weren’t so naturally gifted.
“There is also that Manchester United thing under Alex Ferguson just before he retired. That last season when they won the Premiership they probably didn’t have a particularly great side but they still knew how to win tight games and some teams were still fearful and didn’t produce their best against them.”
The only instance I’ve unearthed yet of that magic number 55 being exceeded is the 56 Club at Reigate GS although after the customary tie was ordered up and issued to the troops they discovered their record breaking run actually incorporated 57 straight victories. Great rugby players, rubbish at maths.
Their avalanche of victories started in the second term of the 1969-70 season and only ended in October 1972 when, reduced to 13 men through injury when no replacements were allowed, they went down 16-12 to a very strong Hampton side. They completed the rest of the season unbeaten.
I must declare an interest here. As a first former at Reigate I enjoyed a fascinating insight into that phenomenal team. The MiC was Bob Harden who, true to Ray French’s adage, also coached our fledgling U12 team.
In addition Bob – although he was definitely ‘Mr Harden Sir’ back then – took our irreligious form 1B for RE. After a couple of minutes there would be a brisk knock on the door and in would troop the 1st XV brains trust – captain Denis Haynes, No.8 Neil Mantell and centre Steve Jones. Gods in all but name.
For the best part of an hour, Mr Harden and the illustrious trio would select the XV for the forthcoming match and then analyse, in remarkable depth, exactly what tactics would be employed. Blackboard and squeaky chalk to the fore.
Sitting up the front I was all ears, this was the inner sanctum, the Reigate GS boot room. Occasionally Mr Harden would half-heartedly give us a script to read but mostly he forgot, I now realise deliberately. A shrewd psychologist, he knew that at least half of us were hanging on their every word. We were being made to feel part of that something ‘special’ which again French alludes to.
When our turn came in 1st XV colours five years down the line we couldn’t match the 56 club – they were the nonpareils even if numerically challenged – but defeats were still as rare as hens’ teeth and treated with funereal silence when read out by the deputy head Mr Gutteridge at morning assembly.
Everybody was in mourning until we returned to winning ways. The educationalists might shudder but that is how good and sometimes great teams are built.
*This article was first published in The Rugby Paper on September 28.
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