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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

How state schools fought back in the great youth rugby arms race

A quiet revolution is underway at the heart of English rugby. The hegemony of independent schools in the age-group game might be well-established, but the signs of a social shift within the sport are there if you look hard enough. 

In the original 34-man squad Eddie Jones named for the recent autumn internationals, 41 per cent were educated at a fee-paying school. If that figure still sounds high, it represents a drop from 54 per cent from the 2019 Six Nations squad, and 68 per cent of Stuart Lancaster’s 2015 World Cup party: slowly but surely, the demographic of the national team – and, potentially, the sport as a whole, could be changing. 

One of Jones’s state-educated majority is Alex Dombrandt. The Harlequins No 8 attended The John Fisher School, a Catholic comprehensive in south London, which has a reputation as one of the country’s best rugby-playing state schools. 

They are the only non-independent school with an annual fixture against Eton College and won School of the Year in the 2017 Crabbies National Rugby Awards, beating prestigious public schools Warwick, Brighton, Rugby, and Cranleigh. Ulster lock, Kieran Treadwell, former England and Wasps wing, Paul Sackey, and Gloucester director of rugby, George Skivington, are all alumni alongside Dombrandt.

The John Fisher School are in a small minority of state institutions that continue to fight against the public-school tide when it comes to rugby; on a standard weekend they muster 23 teams across six age groups, with Year 7 and 8 often reaching as far as a G team. The principal concern, however, for Tom Street, the school’s director of wider participation and healthy living – and head of rugby – is how many Dombrandts are slipping through the net; not just in south London, but nationwide.

“We have enormous breadth, here,” says Street. “We have boys whose parents own firms in the city; we have boys who might be involved in the wrong crowd; we have boys whose families can only just afford food. What rugby does is bring them all together and give them an amazing opportunity. But we know too many kids are getting missed. In the next couple of years, I’d love to set up a national state-school competition.”

Considering how they have had to consistently compete against private-school budgets, The John Fisher School’s sustained attainment has been remarkable. The school’s facilities are modest but what they lack in resource they make up for in the attitude of both pupils and staff, who can often be found scrubbing clean rugby balls at the end of a matchday.

“Our secret weapon is the parents’ support,” Street adds. “They are here and they are helping us out, they run the [post-match] teas. The staff get up early and set up all the pitches. There is an understanding that to be the best we have to give a lot more.”

Headmaster Philip McCullagh agrees. “You have to get the buy-in from the parents,” he says. “We have to get them to buy in, both in terms of the elite and the participation. Parents are sometimes shocked by the expectation – but they like it, because they know it’s not something that will be replicated in other state schools.

“We might have parents with work commitments, two jobs even, and their children will have to get up, get themselves organised, put on their uniform, prepare their kit, come to school for a 7.30am departure, drive far away to play and then get home late. For the staff, too; it’s not lucrative, but it’s not an ordinary job, either. It’s a vocation.”

Even in spite of the succour and assiduousness of pupils, parents and staff, money remains a significant elephant in the room. Covid has pillaged state-school funds, which makes running an extra-curricular operation like rugby – where fixtures in Warwick and York are not uncommon – tougher than ever. The school has raised funds for four minibuses, with the names of local businesses daubed on the side, but they need a fifth.

“It will be a constant challenge. The deficit budget situation for schools, generally, is significant and that’s just for the basics – anything beyond is an extra stretch,” adds McCullagh.  “I know these challenges are there for everyone in the state sector but I hope that we can sustain it to a level where we still have a breadth of offer. Otherwise, the elite and high-level competition will just be for those who can resource and sustain that. How would the next Dombrandt break through if he were in a state-school environment and his parents could not afford private education?”

‘It’s basically an untapped reservoir’

The John Fisher School is not bereft of facilities – they have recently refurbished the gym and strength and conditioning programme, hiring a dedicated coach who delivers personalised training and nutrition programmes for every senior player. 

“It does have a big impact,” says Street. “We’re really looking out for the boys and I’m really proud. The desire to improve is there.”

And it needs to be. Private schools still dominate the age-group landscape: in the past 30 years, the prestigious under-18s NatWest Schools Cup, formerly known as the Daily Mail Cup, has been won by a state school on just five occasions, and not at all since Truro College (alma mater of Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell) lifted it in 2009.

With schools rugby increasingly cutthroat, their set-up must keep maturing rapidly to stop richer schools poaching their best players through scholarships. Kyle Sinckler, who started his rugby life at Graveney School before moving to Epsom College, cites a lack of structured competition as a key factor in talent draining away.

“There’s no form of competition and it’s not just in rugby, it’s in every sport across the board and that comes down to funding,” he told the England Rugby Podcast. “It’s basically an untapped reservoir – the amount of raw talent and potential that is just sitting there waiting to be seen is exciting but they need the platform, they need the competition, they need to play, week in and week out.”

“Scholarships are always a concern, but our rugby is strong enough for our boys not to move on,” Street insists. “We still compete with the top schools in the country and players can still be affiliated with Harlequins – like two of our boys are now. They play for us and they’re in the Harlequins set-up.”

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