The schools lesson: Rebirth of the game back in Jonny's cradle

'The World Cup has greatly helped. Now it's all down to us at the schools. If the kids enjoy it, they'll come back, won't they?'
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The Independent Online

When Jonny Wilkinson's laser equipment locked in on those posts at Sydney's Telstra Stadium and that right boot did the rest last Saturday, it achieved far more than just stirring a nation from its collective couch. Its effect was that of the most effective recruiting agent for the sport, the most potent source of inspiration within our schools.

On the playing fields of Lord Wandsworth School, near Hook in Hampshire, where the England fly-half once practised his kicking with the fanaticism that has come to characterise him, the sense of reflected pride has been almost tangible. Those harbouring aspirations of gaining more from their education than A-level grades have honed their kicking and tackling with added zeal over recent days and weeks. As Tim Richardson, head of sport at the fee-paying school, reflected: "The kids have been bouncing off the walls with excitement."

Perhaps that is to be expected from Wilkinson's alma mater, traditionally a rugby nursery; yet, less than 10 miles away, at Ash Manor School, a state comprehensive near Aldershot in Surrey, the response has been similarly positive. Remarkably so. For the last two years at the school, rugby has no longer been part of the curriculum. Rugby had become an after-school activity for those pupils with sufficient interest. Even they were a declining number.

"Last year, the rugby club effectively got knocked on the head. It just couldn't be justified in terms of numbers," recalled Karl Brown, the school's head of physical education, who is also a player and assistant coach at Farnham Rugby Club, where Wilkinson started out at the age of four. "They were only coming along in dribs and drabs. Yet, when the World Cup was on, the kids were pleading, 'Can we start a rugby club again?' We have, and numbers have grown from 10 in the first week. On Wednesday, our third week, there were around 30 boys who were keen and wanted to get involved. I've come away thinking, 'This is absolutely great; now I can get a fixture organised'. Half the battle is to get the children involved in the first place. The World Cup has greatly helped that. Now it's all down to us at the schools. If the kids enjoy it, they'll come back, won't they?"

He added: "We've also been discussing whether we can reintroduce rugby to the curriculum next year, and that's a possibility. Our head is certainly supportive. Obviously, Jonny has really sparked something here. The kids are up for it and I say, 'Fantastic, long may it continue'."

The state of the game in four years' time will, of course, be the true gauge of the value of England's triumph. As Brown's counterpart at Lord Wandsworth, Tim Richardson, opined: "I think the momentum will be there for a while. Because of people like Jonny Wilkinson, hopefully it will carry on to the next World Cup."

Wilkinson returned to his old college as guest of honour at the annual prize-giving ceremony just before he departed for Australia. Whether that connection will now prove as much a selling point to parents as the academic merits of the co-ed college is arguable, but not entirely out of the question. "It's probably stretching it a little to say that parents will be sending their children to Lord Wandsworh just because of its rugby reputation," said Richardson. "But because of that very strong rugby heritage and the legacy of Jonny, maybe one or two are saying, 'Well, we may just send our kid to the school'."

The college has close links with Harlequins, who train nearby. One former pupil, the winger Ugo Monye, has progressed to feature in Quins' First XV. "He was in the same house as Jonny," said Richardson. "He came from Slough and was a foundationer [one of around 50 pupils a year who come from one-parent families and who do not pay fees]. I think Jonny had a great effect on him. Also at Quins' academy is Marimba Odundo-Mendez, a winger, who is exceptionally fast."

He added: "There are three or four others in our first XV who show great promise, including our captain, Charlie Amesbury, who is probably the most talented player we've had since Ugo."

The feats of Wilkinson & Co have also served to motivate female pupils. "There's been a surge of interest from the girls, and I've been asked by three year- groups to start rugby sessions for them," said Richardson. "So, next term we're going to start tag rugby."

There is a belief in some quarters that rugby will not necessarily continue to prosper once World Cup euphoria and Wilko-itis has waned. Karl Brown and Tim Richardson are firm in their belief that events in Sydney have provided the necessary catalyst for the growth of the game, despite the pre-eminence of 11-man football. "Rugby brings together pupils of different sizes, people from different backgrounds, especially at our school, where we have foundationers," said the latter. "It provides them with the ethos of team spirit and that competitive edge you get when you're in the thick of it."

His comprehensive counterpart added: "Winning the World Cup and the role models that have been created has, from the kids' perspective, been brilliant. I think a lot of parents like their children to be involved in rugby because of the sound moral and social values they get from the game, as opposed to football, where there's the bad language and confrontation - even from the parents watching from the sidelines. It's a world apart."

And men like these are determined to ensure that this particular world just keeps getting larger.