The pathway from the school play fields and the NatWest Cup to international honours is one that we at Fifteen Rugby are always keen to highlight.
On Sunday that pathway was brought alive in a way that it has never been before. NatWest Rugby organised for 30 school players to experience a day in the life of an England player at the NatWest Schools Cup Academy Day at England’s training base, Pennyhill Park.
The 30 players, fifteen U15s and fifteen U18s, were handpicked by former England and Sale Sharks legend, Mark Cueto, after standing out during this season’s NatWest Cup and NatWest Vase tournaments.
The day would see the players train on the perfect Pennyhill Park pitch, before heading into the hotel for lunch, followed by a video analysis session and a talk about strength, conditioning, and nutrition.
To add to the experience, along with Cueto, three England internationals joined the players throughout the day, Bath’s Dave Attwood, Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic, and Harlequins’ former England captain, Chris Robshaw. As if that were not enough, it was also the day that Eddie Jones announced his England squads for the games against Wales this weekend and against Australia in a few weeks, which meant that players from the squad were to be seen all around the magnificent setting, checking into their rooms and generally enjoying the superb facilities.
As Freddie McKibbin, centre for The Leys 1st XV, pointed out, “It’s just surreal, you see them all (the players) on TV and then here they are just standing around.”
That inspiration at being so close to the players and the dream of being an England player was a sentiment shared by all, with Gunnersbury 1st XV fly half Tom O’Halloran saying, “It’s great having them around and seeing them all at the desk earlier, it was wicked.”
Following a briefing from Cueto, who spoke to Fifteen Rugby at length afterwards, describing the occasion as “a great day, it’s a real treat, let’s be honest, to come and eat dinner in the room in the hotel that the boys are staying at and to train on the training pitch, it’s a proper insight into a day in the life of a rugby player and hopefully it’s a massive carrot for them to really push on and work hard”, the players then moved over to England’s training pitch and admired the famous ‘Scrum Garden’, a creation of former England forwards coach Graham Rowntree – a special area with a strict ‘no backs’ policy.
On the pitch they took part in two drills, with the group splitting in two, U18s and U15s. One half took part in a series of rugby based games designed to help players understand space and how to utilise it. Tirinity’s Charlie Fatoma described it succinctly, saying:
“It was two touch, reinforcing the idea of support lines after the contact zones. It was about scanning for spaces and getting the ball to them.”
This game was to prove the basis for the analysis session in the afternoon, but before that the players had to try out the other drill, one which was to become a highly competitive point of discussion as the day progressed. The drill was about speed, beginning with a 10 metre speed test, followed by a demonstration of techniques and drills to maximize your speed, and finishing with a second 10 metre speed test.
The fastest time of the day went to Bishop Wordsworth’s 1st XV centre, Cadan Murley. He covered the 10 metre distance in an impressive 1.56 seconds, describing the drill as “a great run out”, whilst his teammates compared and contrasted times.
Each of the players had made a big mark on the NatWest competitions last year, but there were some, naturally, who had gone further. Two among them were Connor Doherty and Tom Walsh, who reached the final of the U18 Vase with their school, St Ambrose College.
They described their Twickenham day out as “a very good experience, but we just got caught up in the moment”. Pennyhill Park was a happier experience for the two, who marveled at the facilities and the experience, “it’s brilliant, it’s a really good experience. The pitch is really nice. Seeing all the players walk past aswell, it’s mad. You see it on tv and see all the professional players. Then to come down and see them all and train with some of them, it’s a very good experience.”
Another who was on the wrong end of result at Twickenham this year was Jack Reid, who lost the U15 Cup final with Wellington College to Sedbergh. The back row player seized on this Pennyhill Park opportunity though, the young man has been invited to train with the Wellington College 1st XV next season, so training under back row experts such as Chris Robshaw and Matt Kvesic was a huge opportunity for him particularly. “It’s brilliant just to meet them, to see the size of them, what they do day in day out, and what you have to do to get here.”
That, really, was the point of the day. To inspire and reward these young players, giving them a taste not just of the opportunities and the lifestyle of an England player, but also of the work both on the field and behind the scenes that need to be done.
It was a point that Cueto was keen to emphasize afterwards; “ If you want to make it you’ve got to do everything you can, whether it be on the field when you’re playing or training, in the gym, in the classroom studying analysis, or watching what you’re eating, you’ve got to anything you can because the competition is so high, and if you’re not doing it, someone else is and they’ll get the chances and the opportunities. If you want it, you’ve got to buy into it.”
That same passion was evident when Cueto spoke about the analysis session that the players did after lunch, where players were encouraged to be deeply honest in both their praise and their criticism, something that Cueto said was a crucial part of the sport.
“It is (difficult for young players to speak up in a professional environment) it’s just the game though, you can’t hide, there’s always a time where you make a mistake. Whether you’re a Jonny Wilkinson or Lawrence Dallaglio, everybody makes mistakes. It’s part of the culture, part of the environment, you’ve just got to step up when you make a mistake. Equally, when you do something good, you get a pat on the back. It’s a fantastic sport for that, it’s a fantastic environment, and these boys will be used to that.”
The post lunch session also included an in depth talk about food and nutrition, an increasingly important area of the game, but one in which players need to learn a lot about in order to get it right.
It can be a difficult task though, with the temptation to stray from the correct nutrition on every street corner and ever trip to the supermarket. The former England winger stressed that it was a case of preparation and planning though:
Preparation is key, it’s different for these guys as they’re with their parents, but when you become a pro it’s all about preparing your food and making sure you have the right things in your cupboard. Days where there’s nothing in the fridge, bad food is easy to get hold of, so those are the days when you tend to get a pizza or a takeaway, so preparation is key. But if you want to do it, then you should do. You don’t need to be whiter than white every day, but you stick to your white meat and your veg and your fruit, you can’t really go far wrong.”
For the young players it was an eye opening experience, not just of how much dedication, planning, and learning is needed in order to become a player, but also of the lifestyle that comes with being an England player.
The day came at the perfect point in the season too, with the pathway to the top about to be further highlighted with the World Rugby U20 Championships coming to Manchester in a fortnight’s time. With the likes of Maro Itoje, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and may others making the leap from U20 Championships to the England team in recent times, that pathway is as clear as ever.
Cueto was clearly excited about the Championships coming to his home town too, and fully expects a great turnout following the success of the England v Uruguay fixture in Manchester during the Rugby World Cup.
“I think it’s great…we were lucky enough to get an England game at the World Cup…and the city was absolutely right behind it, even though it was a dead rubber. I’m sure the people will come out and support and get behind the boys, I think it’s fantastic to have it in Manchester.”
Back at Pennyhill Park though the last bit of a day as an England player was taking place; filming. A select few players spent an hour or so filming with the England players for a few promotional pieces. Once again it was a lesson in the sort of off field requirements of these top players and the time it can take from their day.
For these boys who had all excelled in their school shirts last year, the whole day served to be a true inspiration. For some it might make that 1% difference that they need to be able to kick on and make it right to the top, for others it might just help them to become the best they can be.
For all though it is a day they will never forget, and a fitting reward from NatWest Rugby for their performances in the NatWest Cup last year.
Perhaps the last word though should do to Cadan Murley, who succinctinly summed up the day, saying: “It definitely makes you want to make it, it’s so nice here too!”
And of course, as one player said, there is always that most important of things to any school sportsman: “So much stash too!”