Another day, another Jonny Wilkinson...

Click to follow

James Clarke prepares to kick for goal, hands clasped out in front of him, in Wilkinson style. It's Saracens Under-16s against Cheshunt, with puddles under foot, but a Sydney-inspired spring in the step.

A day for dreaming of Jonny and Johno and Lawrence Dallaglio, and never mind the rain. Boys tumble out of people carriers and estates, with a wave of goodbye and a "Pick me up at 12, dad!" Grab a ball, get stuck in and let the washing machine do the rest. So good to be at Saracens Rugby Club on a sodden Sunday morning.

They turn up every week, from waifish under-sevens to burly lads of 16, and not just when England have won the World Cup. A scene in north London mirrored at hundreds of grounds up and down the land. Under dark-grey skies it is difficult to think of them as a golden generation, the first flowering of English youth to be warmed by a World Cup-winning sun. But they know what is afoot, all right.

"We had a break in lessons on Saturday morning," said Adam Beckman, of the Under-15s, describing the scene at Mill Hill School, where he is on a sports scholarship. "There was a big screen up, and TVs dotted around, so we could watch the final. They called us into fourth period when Martin Johnson was being handed the cup."

Adam and his mates get started with a rigorous warm-up while dad Ray takes refuge in the clubhouse, sipping coffee from a polystyrene cup. "Obviously, Richard Hill's a big hero," he said, glancing up at the framed shirts donated by the Saracens' flanker and newly-crowned world champion. Hill, like another of England's heroes, Jason Leonard, trod this muddy acre in his teens.

Adam wants one of the £45 skin-tight shirts, but he may have to wait until Christmas. "He picks out the different performances of each player,"Ray said . "After the final it was 'Dallaglio had his best game, he was in everywhere', and 'that penalty should never have been given'." Adam, by the way, is 14 years old and 6ft 4in. Like Dallaglio, he is a No 8, though the second row surely beckons.

Alongside him is Matt: much smaller and quicker, he plays on the wing. Rugby is still the game for all shapes and sizes, and now much more besides. "It's a gentlemanly sport," said Ray, a season ticket holder at Tottenham Hotspur. "At White Hart Lane you hear the fans screaming 'Stand up if you hate Arsenal'. You don't get that with rugby."

What you do get is success, and the interest that goes with it. "I take great pride in England's performance, as an Englishman," said Barney Richards, recently retired after serving as Saracens' secretary since 1981, six years before the first World Cup. "I think Clive Woodward would say there's a tremendous depth to England's success; depth to the quality of the Zurich Premiership, down through the clubs.

"I hope the enthusiasm for England can be carried forward into enthusiasm for Saracens," he adds. "The gate for next week's match against Rotherham could be up by a half. Richard Hill will probably want to play. He is a wonderful ambassador for us, the most unpompous man you could meet."

Saracens' junior section numbers around 270. Yesterday some of them had to be sent home. There is wet, and then there is unplayable. On the main pitch, where Hill and Leonard cut their teeth before the professional revolution took the first XV to Watford, the Under-16s happily survive the deluge. In the next age group down, twin brothers Chris and Daniel Elliott are the half-backs. "I'm going to work on dropping goals with my wrong foot," Chris promised. A team-mate is still in hospital a fortnight after breaking an arm. The boys aren't afraid of injury, are they? "No," said Ged, Chris's dad, "but their parents are."

No need to dwell on the drawbacks. There are waiting lists to join Saracens' juniors. They would all like to play for England, of course, but what about thoughts of a full-time career? "Not yet," said Ray Beckman, firmly. "Adam plays because he loves it."

Comments