“It simply cannot be right that state educated athletes are so woefully under-represented in our elite sports.” These are the words of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools at Ofsted between 2012 and 2016, and of all the major sports rugby is the most private school dominated.
Admittedly, the situation is a difficult one to alter. One that would require a shift in emphasis and greater investment, but current system in which young talent from state schools (usually grammar or traditionally ‘rugby’ playing schools) end up going to boarding schools to further their career aged 16. Many comprehensive schools do not play the game at all.
The exodus of players away from the clubs, schools and coaches that fostered their love for the game, to further themselves in competitive structure by playing regularly at a high level, is a sad state of affairs. The great private schools have resources that are unparalleled in English rugby, whereas state schools are hamstrung by lack of available playing space, money and interest.
However, this imbalance is not the fault of private schools. They are merely the beneficiaries of a structural imbalance. Rugby is simply not played in enough state schools for it to be feasible for top class talent to stay. What is required then is a slow shift in the culture to one in which rugby is played regularly, for at the minute this seems to rely on teaching staff interested in the sport.
As Ellis Genge has stated, rugby must democratise itself and get beyond the gilded walls of the traditional heartlands to grow. There is talent there.
Genge himself moved from John Cabot Academy to Hartpury college age 16. Likewise, Kyle Sinckler’s school, Graveney, in Tooting, only played rugby after a supportive PE teacher set up a team, but Sinckler eventually ended up attending the private Epsom college. This is a path, from state to private school, mirrored by Lewis Ludlam amongst others.
Sport in the state school sector has always been a lottery. According to Jason Leonard, the great England prop, “we played soccer at my school, until one day a new teacher joined who was Welsh… he lined us up one day and said: ‘I see on the curriculum you don’t play rugby? Well, you will do next year.’”
“I like to think I would have fallen into rugby somewhere down the line,” Leonard said, “but if it wasn’t for that teacher turning up, I might not have found out what a great sport rugby was.”
The worry is that, after a series of funding cuts to education, the situation is getting worse, and more talent may slip through the net. This is the view of Ian Simpson, from the fee paying school Oakham, where annual fees can reach £31,000, “my great sadness is that state school sport has gone downhill in the last 20 years. We don’t play any state schools, because they don’t offer the right level or quantity of competition.”
After RWC 2015, when 20 of the 31 players in the England squad attended private schools (compared to 11 in 2003 and 14 in 1995), the RFU announced the All Schools programme.
This was designed to increase the amount of secondary schools playing the sport by 750 by 2019. If the purpose is simply to produce talent to be siphoned off to private schools though, what is the point?
The gulf in class, at First XV level in particular, between the top schools like Sedbergh (whose school first team last lost a game on the 23rd November 2016) is ridiculous. These schools have the resources to bring players in from around the country (the world in fact) on scholarships for sixth form, and so whilst good state schools may be able to compete at younger ages, at sixth form it is simply not feasible.
Nobody can blame private schools for recruiting the best talent, and nobody can blame players for being attracted to such high quality environments, but there must be debate as to how healthy this culture is. Particularly as player recruitment becomes increasingly professional and cutthroat. Elite clubs and schools must be incentivised to engage local state schools and broaden rugby’s social and geographical appeal.
If rugby is serious about growth, and serious about spreading the values it so cherishes, then state schools and local clubs must be supported, and the imbalance between the elite and the ordinary must be addressed. Hopefully English success in 2019 can be the catalyst.
Written by Joe Ronan