As part of NatWest’s initiative through their sponsorship of the Schools Cup that will see 30 school players being offered the chance to attend an Academy Day at England’s training base, Fifteen Rugby caught up with England and Wasps loosehead, Matt Mullan this weekend.
Mullan has close ties with the NatWest Cup at the moment, his former school, Bromsgrove, won the title last year and are among the favourites this year. Not only that, but his father, Paul, is part of their coaching team alongside Tony Windo. Mullan was on the touchline for his school’s most famous rugby hour last year.
“It was fantastic to be there, firstly on a personal note, but even if Bromsgrove weren’t there, just to be there for the occasion.”
“To see school children being able to play at Twickenham and to have so many people there…it’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Some people never get to play at Twickenham ever in their life and to have a bunch of schoolboys trying to do their best to win a game at Twickenham, it’s fantastic.”
That sheer joy and shared pleasure in the experience is part of what Mullan believes is so important about rugby, particularly at schools level.
“When you start playing, it’s all about enjoyment, and I’d always encourage people to play as many sports as they can.”
“I remember getting into rugby at school and mainly doing it to make some friends. I’d just joined the school and they didn’t play football, so I thought, why not play rugby and make some friends doing it.”
“Every weekend you’re trying to win and do your best. It teaches you a huge amount about teamwork and sacrifice that you’ve got to put in. They are your friends but your team too.”
Not that it was ever all just plain sailing, but it all adds to the memories: “The hard sessions, Monday night used to be a fitness session for us, dark nights after school in the winter. They’re the sorts of things that you hold firm as memories.”
“Sometimes you look back and think the games you built up were the biggest games you’d ever play in your life. When you can sit back and look at it with your mates, it’s all about the fond memories of the wins you’ve had, or good times after the game.”
That joy in playing and in the shared memories is still something that Mullan strives for now though, it is, perhaps, what best links the school and amateur game to the professional game.
“That doesn’t change when you become a professional, I mean that’s what drives us every day, working hard and hopefully getting wins that you can enjoy together. I think it’s really good that people can experience that at schoolboy level.”
The aim at the moment though for Mullan, must be to force his way above Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler in the England loosehead pecking order. Mullan sees hope in a comment from Eddie Jones recently though, “ultimately, I mean Eddie said it a couple of times in the press in the last few weeks, you can’t just sit and talk about wanting to play for England, he’s going to pick players that are dominating in the Premiership so a lot of it comes down to how well you are playing for your club.”
Wasps are certainly dominating right now, with five wins on the bounce, including a mauling of Saracens, followed by a win over Watson’s Bath on Saturday.
“We’re in a really good place. It was a huge effort from us to get out of the group in Europe. We knew before Christmas that our Premiership form was a bit inconsistent, but in the last few weeks we’ve been able to build some consistency in terms of results, we know that some of our performances are still not quite where we want them to be so we’re working hard Monday to Friday to try to put things right and we know there’s a huge few weeks coming up before we get back into Europe.”
“The Premiership’s so tight that a couple of losses in a row and you can slip right back down to eighth or ninth position, so we’re not getting to far ahead of ourselves but we’re enjoying it and hopefully we can keep winning games.”
The players might not be getting too far ahead of themselves, but fans are certainly getting excited given recent results, and rumours that David Pocock might be then next major signing following the announcement last week that Danny Cipriani will arrive in the summer. Dai Youngs has certainly been savvy in the transfer market, as shown by snapping up George Smith and Charlie Piutau.
“Dai’s very, very, clever about who he recruits. He only ever looks to strengthen so I think he’s (Cipriani) going to add to us, he’s going to add some real strength in depth. I think it’s going to be very good for us.”
In camp with England, Mullan has been working under a new scrummaging coach, Ian Peel, who previously was in charge of the U20 side, guiding them to two Junior World Championship titles. Several of those under Peel’s charge as U20s have now broken into the senior set up, and their impact on the England camp and the benefits of their success for English rugby is clear to Mullan.
“I think it’s been really important for England to show that we can win those titles at the World Cups and you start to see the benefits in a senior team when you’ve got three or four coming out of an age-group able to beat their peers on a world stage and it’s only good for English rugby.”
So what advice would Mullan have for players who might be running out at Allianz Park on Saturday for the U18 NatWest Cup and Vase semi finals who might want to make that step to U20 level, professional level, and perhaps even full England honours?
“I think firstly, to enjoy it, I mean we get told that even at a professional level. There’s no point in putting too much pressure on yourselves either as an individual or a team, but the biggest way you’re going to enjoy it is if you win the games so the next piece of advice would be just to give everything.”
“I mean there’s no better feeling than coming off the pitch having given your all and you can look at your teammates and know that they’ve given their all. Even if you end up losing the game, you know that everyone’s put everything into that performance and given yourselves the best chance of winning so enjoyment and just commit fully to it. And if you make those sacrifices that you have to whether it’s in preparation, training, or during the game itself.”
Enjoy it and work hard. It is certainly a sentiment that his old school will be taking on board as they prepare for their semi final against Whitgift on Saturday. Bromsgrove are looking like the side to beat once again, but as Mullan acknowledges, it’ll be tough.
“I watched their quarter final against RGS High Wycombe as I only live ten minutes away, so it was nice to be able to show my support. They’re going well again, hopefully they can make the final again but it’s going to be tough.”
Matt Mullan was speaking on behalf of England Rugby and official partner NatWest, proud supporters of school rugby. As a part of the NatWest Schools Cup 2016 30 school players are being offered the chance to attend an Academy Day at England’s training base. Follow NatWest Rugby on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news.