England rugby team reaps benefits of school talent factory
Harpenden (United Kingdom) (AFP)
English private schools have long been a rich source of rugby talent but one state school has bucked the trend, churning out a galaxy of stars, including current England captain Owen Farrell.
St George's School in leafy Harpenden, near London, provided four of Eddie Jones' squad that reached the World Cup final last year.
Three of those -- Farrell, George Ford and dynamic lock Maro Itoje -- were integral to England's campaign in Japan and are set to play key roles again when they launch their Six Nations campaign against France on Sunday.
Saracens' hooker Jack Singleton also featured at the World Cup and is on the fringes of Jones's current squad.
Neil Harris, head of rugby at mixed-sex St George's, which has about 1,400 pupils, speaks with pride about the school's record in producing top-class talent.
"I think it's quite an incredible tale really, how a state school in Harpenden in Hertfordshire can very proudly boast the fact that four of the current England squad -- the World Cup squad in particular -- have played a part in this school at some point in their careers," he told AFP.
Harris, a former loosehead prop who has been at the school for 11 years, describes himself as the "face and the voice" of rugby at St George's but there are plenty of other people, including parents, who are involved in their spare time.
- World Cup boost -
The coach said the World Cup, in which England beat the All Blacks before succumbing to South Africa in the final, energised everybody who had a connection with St George's, where the older buildings are affectionately named "Hogwarts" after the school in the Harry Potter tales.
"It is great to be recognised," said Harris, who was married in the school chapel.
"The real impact inside the school has been the conversations down the corridors. The boys, girls, parents, staff, and families have been really enjoying the roller coaster through the Rugby World Cup.
"What was great was hearing the students say and understand Maro, George, Owen and Jack have been in the same chapel, assembly room and classes that they have sat in.
"It has really been the biggest thing to take from it."
One of those boys who has revelled in the success of his predecessors is Lance Kruger, outside centre for the Under-14s and marked out by Harris as a player with huge potential.
"Big thing to look for when you watch them (the England players) on the TV, you think 'that could be me', so you always have to have that dream in mind," Kruger said before he went off to train.
"Especially because some of the coaches are still here, you can think 'I'm being coached by the same person', which gives you a lot of reassurance they know what they're talking about."
- 'Aim Higher' -
Harris says there is no magic formula for success.
"I don't think there's necessarily a secret to it," he said.
"I think we've been very fortunate with the types of boys that have come into the school but we are a very traditional rugby school, we keep our values very strongly and it's great that these four guys have managed to uphold these values, not just when they were in school but also beyond that as well."
Harris highlights Itoje, who left St George's to go to historic private school Harrow on a scholarship, as having developed from being an excellent shot-putter into a top-class rugby player through sheer hard work, even though he was not necessarily a natural.
"The big thing about us being a non-selective school is you do not know who is coming in one year to the next," he said.
"We encourage people to work hard. Maro is a great case study of what happens when you do work hard. They do get better in terms of skills and understanding the game."
Despite the school's high-profile success stories, headmistress Helen Barton is keen to highlight that there are plenty of boys out on a Saturday morning representing the school in rugby and girls playing lacrosse in teams of all abilities.
"Our motto is 'Aim Higher' but it is not 'Highest'," she said.
"That feeds through to what we are saying to the pupils -- 'you do not have to be the best but just to do your best'."
© 2020 AFP