Yesterday I travelled to Twickenham Stadium to watch some of the Nat West School Finals Day, the culmination of a season’s worth of rugby involving schools from all over the country.
It was certainly the case in times gone by that school rugby was one of the purest form of the sport. Nobody was super-fit, nobody cheated, nobody was too obsessed by winning at all costs, respect for the officials was all-embracing and the prospect of watching young men proudly give their all for their unit or ‘tribe’ (whilst indeed said tribe in turn gave its unstinting support in this endeavour) was not only life-enhancing but an unreserved pleasure.
I’m not quite saying that these days things have fundamentally changed in any of the above respects, but modern team tactics are infinitely superior, the participants are far bigger and fitter and – through coaching and/or in imitation of the elite game – all the more well-known unofficial contrived elements of professional rugby (right through to ‘time wasting’ antics to run down the clock) have become part and parcel of the whole.
Back in the day, my father – and before him my grandfather – used to preach that in rugby ‘possession’ was not just nine-tenths of the law, as it was in all other walks of life, but in fact the key to everything.
At my father’s prep school any boy who deliberately kicked away possession was beaten, though ironically that may probably have had more to do with the headmaster’s sexual leanings than his quite proper desire to ensure his school played its rugby in the way it should. The concept that, when you had run out of attacking ideas (or perhaps possessed none in the first place) you hoofed the pill downfield – and thereby handed it on a plate to your opposition – was completely alien to common sense and the spirit of the game, which in some circles could be likened to warfare carried on without dangerous weapons.
When the competition was called the Daily Mail Schools Finals Day my other half and I used to attend it regularly, both because we had connections with Wellington College and because, as keen rugby fans, it was as useful occasion as any to spot budding talent that might one day make its presence felt in the elite game.
Thus it was in 2010 and 2011 – the two years that Whigift School won the Under-18s Final – we first set eyes upon Elliott Daly (now of Wasps and England) and Marland Yarde (now of Harlequins and England). In 2010 they played alongside each other in the centre: if memory serves, Yarde scored two tries and seemed so smooth, talented and fast that he resembled Jeremy Guscott reincarnated. The two of them worked together like Rolls and Royce.
The following year Daly, still only 18, was fresh from a six-try scoring stint in the victorious England Under-20 Six Nations campaign and signalled his supreme ball-timing skill by kicking a penalty goal from inside his own half that to this day I swear was still rising as it flew between the posts. At the time there were only two marksmen in the entire Aviva Premiership who I would have pointed to as being capable of matching that feat.
Yesterday was all a bit more mundane.
Having in the past notched an enviable record of success in the competition, Wellington College had withdrawn from it [there were reasons for this at the time, though I never quite got a handle on what they were] and I believe this year’s entry at Under-15 level was their first in at least three years.
In the Under-15 Final – it’s an age thing, in the sense that the boys have to be under fifteen at the commencement of the academic year in September, so no doubt many of them were beyond their sixteenth birthdays by yesterday – they were playing another proud rugby school Sedbergh, alma mater of Will Carling amongst others.
Wellington lost by the margin of 24 points to 17, albeit that this did not reflect their opponents’ general superiority (at one point early in the second half they were 24-7 up and cruising).
By chance we were sitting close to a block of Wellington support, which was decidedly partisan to the point of being virtually one-eyed when it came to the refereeing decisions, but hey – you might say – that’s all part of the fun. The truth, in my view, was that in talent and skill the teams were pretty evenly matched but the difference in effectiveness was all down to the quality of their coaching: of the two teams Sedbergh, playing more as a team and better drilled than their opponents, were deserved winners.
As ever, the experience of being surrounded by hundreds of hormone-filled, youthful, seemingly idealistic and ‘on the verge of taking over the world’ teenagers (of both sexes) was an exhilarating one that never fails to infuse me with joy and confidence about the future of the world.
Of course, being a generation (or even two) ahead of some of them, I keep to myself the hard-earned and unfortunate wisdom that one day soon some of of them may find that it’s a case of ‘downhill all the way’ from here!