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Unrivalled passion and determination the key for history making Dulwich College

Winning the U18 NatWest Cup final with the second highest points total in its history, 53-5, might suggest that Dulwich College’s third Cup triumph in a row was built solely on attacking flair.

Certainly a Twickenham hat-trick from winger Anthony Nzegwu and a scintillating display from full back Ali Neden were evidence that this was a game full of effective running rugby, with Dulwich finally able to show on the grandest stage that they are a side with serious strike power out wide.

For this writer though, this incredible double triumph, of winning a third Schools Cup in a row and doing so in such style, was actually built on three qualities that have nothing to ball skills – Passion, determination and outstanding leadership.

That is not to say that other schools do not have passion or determination, or that Warwick did not on Saturday – indeed talking to their captain Joe Blake after the game it was clear to see just how much passion he had, and what a leader of men he is too.

However Dulwich College seem to have a passion for their shirt and a determination to do well for it, for their teammates, for those who have worn it before, and for those who will wear it in the future, that is highly unusual at any level of the game, let alone schoolboy level.

It is what Stuart Lancaster has tried to instill in the England side, what Sir Ian McGeechan always instilled in his Lions sides, and what the All Blacks have just always had; a belief that you a merely a custodian of your shirt, taking it with pride from its previous owner and handing it on to the next man in an even better state than you received it.

If that all sounds a bit corny then I make no real apologies, corny seems to work.

Listening to their captain, Felix Maddison, and their Director of Rugby, Sam Howard, after the game it was impossible not to pick up on just how much passion there is for the Dulwich College shirt, nor how impressive their leadership is. While prop Josh Ibunaokpe, winning his third Schools Cup, could barely contain his pride and emotion for the school, his teammates and the shirt.

The semi final against RGS High Wycombe was where the wider schoolboy rugby public was given a glimpse of the Dulwich passion, as Howard alluded to, saying:

“Last year we had to admit that we were good but in that first year, time and time again they showed unbelievable spirit in defence, and I think three weeks ago was the first time that this lot had really shown that. They took so much confidence from their defence against RGS. It takes massive guts to tackle those massive boys time and time again.”

It was Maddison after the final on Saturday though who really shed some true light on just how passionate and determined his side is, saying:

“That (intensity) is what we look to bring to every match, if you have seen us play through the season, that is something we pride ourselves on and I think the first year and this year our intensity and desire to play for this shirt is what makes us different to other people.”

“We don’t have twelve international players like Colston’s did, what we have is a culture where you give everything, nothing less, nothing more, and anything less is unacceptable, and that is why we win this tournament.”

Listening to him speak it was hard not to disagree with that summary, and when Ibuanokpe weighed in it became even harder:

“I can’t believe it went this well. We had a lot to live up to after last year. I’m so proud of them all. Let’s just say there were a few (tears). It’s emotional, it’s the last time I’m wearing this shirt, the last time I’m wearing the Dulwich shirt in a rugby match.”

“After seven years it becomes your whole life. When it hits you that it’s the last time it’s a big thing but I’m really glad that we went out on a high.”

“That (pride in the shirt) is really what you can expect from a Dulwich team, I think that’s what sets us out from the rest. You can come up against teams that are bigger than you, faster than you, stronger than you, but no one will care more than us, no one will put more down and I have the utmost proud in all of those boys, it’s just fantastic to play with them.”

Passion like that for your school, teammates, and the shirt you wear is unusual even at the highest level, yet it had been cranked up even further ahead of the game with the visit of Old Alleynian Nick Easter for their final training session before the final, as Ibuanokpe explained:

“It really made the point that it’s part of a legacy to pull this shirt on. You go in our school pavilion, you’ve got a wall with all the 1st XV names down, you’re in there looking at all those names thinking of all the great people that have played before. That’s what keeps you running when you can’t, your legs aren’t working, keeps you tackling.”

Of course all of that passion can be a negative if you do not have the leadership to channel it properly and to keep a calm head despite the maelstrom of emotions. Dulwich have that in abundance though, from Howard and his lieutenants Simon Thomas and Matt Burdekin, through their three triple champions, Ibuanokpe, Jo Charnley, and John Winter.

The greatest example of leadership and a calm head though came from their captain, Maddison – who had some observing after the game that he was the type of character that would go a long way in the army.

Describing his side’s reaction to a yellow card early in the game (while the score was still 0-0) Maddison accidently revealed just how key he is in focusing his side’s passion and keeping them calm and focused, saying:

“When that happened (the yellow card) we all just got in and we said, ‘Let’s just push through this.’ And we were better than that. We not only didn’t concede, we scored two tries….We had a word with our playmakers (during the yellow card) and said: ‘We’re only moving this ball wide if it’s on.’”

Modestly he did not name-check himself, but it was clear to those observing that the ‘we’ as described by Maddison was in fact the captain himself. It might not seem like a lot on the surface but having the wherewithal to change the tactics on the field during that yellow card period, on such a big and emotional day, is actually highly impressive.

None of this is to dilute the quality of the performance on Saturday, for it was a top quality performance, possibly the best ever at a Twickenham Schools Cup final, but it was underpinned by that passion, determination, and quality of leadership.

Followers of, and players for, other schools will read this and say that they have passion too – and it is true, schoolboy rugby still has some of the most pure and unrestrained passion of any form of rugby, however passion of the level shown this weekend is almost unrivalled, as we have said, it is rare even at the very highest level. Millfield have shown similar levels in their pursuit of the Surrey 7s, Rosslyn Park 7s, and Sebergh 10s titles, and perhaps it is that which shows us why this passion and determination is so key.

The three major titles in school rugby, the St Joseph’s Festival, Rosslyn Park, and the NatWest Cup, have been one by the side at each competition who showed the most determination and passion to win that title. That can be no coincidence.

How thrilling it was on Saturday though that the end result of that passion and determination was a scintillating attacking performance, one that will be remembered for years to come, and a chant that will be remembered by these boys to tell their grandchildren – ‘back to back to back’.

By Angus Savage

@AngusSavageXV

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