The weather has been more than ‘a leveller’, as the voice of rugby for people of a certain age, Bill McLaren, might once have said. It was a particularly foul day this Wednesday and the wind was doing its best to bring down the rugby posts and anything else in its way, when I battled my way through storms and floods to catch a glimpse of the 1st XV in training.
Marcus Johnson, the new Teacher in Charge of the 1st XV, told me mournfully that the team have not been tested for the last three weeks, as six matches in a row have been cancelled due to waterlogged pitches. I managed to restore a little twinkle in his demeanour by mentioning the half-term rugby tour to Limerick. His squad are also looking forward to the tour and when I asked them whether Mr Kealy, our Irish Head of Business Studies, was right to predict they would be “in for a good hiding”, Stuart Brown replied that last year on the Ireland tour they only conceded one try and won every game! So there is a good level of confidence in the team. Despite the weather, they have played some good rugby when they have had the opportunity, having spent much of last term playing A team fixtures in preparation for this term’s matches.
Regular readers of this column will know that I cover a wide range of sports in varying degrees of depth and expertise. I would like it to be known that my son Reggie took one of my London Marathon medals to his school today and showed in to everyone in assembly, thus further corroborating my claims in last week’s article on the Hunt, and making me feel strangely proud and strangely fraudulent at the same time!
As a founder member of the Self Preservation Society, I have never really mastered the game of rugby although I did once score a try in an under-10s match. (No, it was not a fathers v sons match!) I spent most of my prep school career playing number 16 and using a flag to indicate whose throw it was. This meant I got to miss lessons and get match teas without actually putting myself in peril, which appealed to me at the time. I feel that my brief flirtation with rugby is good enough for me to be fully in awe of those who are prepared to put their bodies in the firing line, so to speak.
I am certainly in awe of Shaun Perry, our ex-England International and coach, who helps add some professional insight into proceedings. The lads describe him as full of ‘bad chat’ but excellent advice. This was strangely contradictory to his view of his ‘excellent banter’! Shaun played his last game for England in 2007 and he now lives in Stourbridge. He, like Mr Johnson, was dispirited by the current weather conditions, although he thought the hurricane strength winds might help our kicking (for at least a half). He is looking forward to the tour, as it means he will get to know the team better – as living together in confined quarters for a few days tends to have that effect. He is also looking forward to spinning out a non-stop stream of quips in the manner our backs spin the ball out wide. Once again there was a divergence of views on this analogy, the lads feeling that his quips will never reach the standard of their passes! Certainly watching Hugo Scott and Oli Brown practising their passing skills led me to think Sean’s quips must be of a very high standard!
Hugo was of course the lead in the Senior School play last term and I asked him how he adjusted to the rugby stage after the adulation he received in the Ashton Theatre. He told me that he has always been good with lines and so he is a natural three-quarter! He enjoys blocking and directing the play. He likes nothing better than gaining a chorus of approval for a good performance and finds it difficult to mask his disappointment when things don’t go according to the script. Oli Brown agreed with Hugo. “I agree with Hugo,” he said.
This year the coaching staff has been supplemented by Guy ‘son of Kirkby’ Kirkby. It should be noted that ‘big daddy’ Duncan Kirkby has been at the heart of Shrewsbury School rugby for many years and is once more the organiser of the tour to Limerick. If there is anyone more devoted to Shrewsbury rugby and rugby in general I have yet to meet him. Guy ‘son of Kirkby’ is an Old Salopian who now plays for Chester 1st XV in the Second Division of British rugby. I asked him what he felt his coaching could bring to the team. He suggested that he was there to “toughen them up” as they are all “a bit soft” but he assured me they are improving. He explained that what I was watching in the Cricket Centre was a number of drills and exercises aimed at improving individual skills under fatigue. This means being able to do amazing things even when you are very tired; I thought the Housemasters should attend this session!
The Cricket Centre in full wet weather mode: left - rugby training; middle - javelin-training; right - bowling session
The Cricket Centre was definitely a good place to be on Wednesday, as the winds and rain lashed the Site. I was intrigued to see not only rugby training going on, but George Day honing his javelin skills with coach Spencer Gunnell, and Henry Blofield enjoying a bowling machine session with Mr Pridgeon.
I asked Guy if he enjoyed coaching his younger brother Roan, who is currently playing scrum-half for the team. He said he loved it! Apparently he also enjoys “toughening up” Roan at home. I asked how he would assess his younger brother’s skills. He told me that Roan is an “average player who needs to work on his individual skills required for his position”. He went on to describe Roan as “lazy and prone to tantrums”. I asked Roan how he enjoyed being coached by his big brother. Somewhat overcome and emotional, he told me, “I cannot compliment my brother highly enough; he is my inspiration.” Stirring stuff. (I very much hope this article will not cause a rift in the Kirkby household!)
The squad were eager to talk about their forthcoming tour, having been starved of competitive rugby for much of this term. Captain Rob Treasure (known affectionately as ‘buried’ as he is often at the bottom of a ruck) is renowned for his inspirational team talks. Ed Harrison assured me that phrases such as ‘let’s make sure we win this one’ had really helped him to understand the technical game plan.
Jonty Newbould, Archie Lywood, James Moulson, Jack Hodges and George Bradshaw were kind enough to tell me that playing for the 5th XI football team (coached by me) had done wonders for their physical and mental conditioning. Jonty insisted that the dynamic training ground methods I had installed last term had dramatically improved his agility and he also alluded to the importance I attached to mentally preparing my team to deal with defeat, which as a Wolves fan he had found very comforting.
Sam Hill told me that he thought Guy Kirkby was “not really very big” and that he would “be able to take him on in a tackling head to head”. Sam Roberts and James Plaut thought Sam was quite brave to say that and wanted Guy to know that they really appreciated his “useful input”.
There was certainly a happy and confident nature about the touring squad. When I asked if there was a moment of the season, they all agreed it was when Stuart Brown celebrated a potential try about ten metres from the line, only to be tackled two metres out! I very much hope that they will not find that their matches in Limerick are cancelled when they get there. This is a talented squad of players who deserve to play and express themselves on the pitch. They are well coached and supported and it is clear that Shrewsbury Rugby is in a good place. Mr Johnson, whilst typically cagey, is, I sense, quietly confident that we can compete with anyone at the various Sevens tournaments after half term. So watch this space!
Once again I have been very impressed by another area of Salopian life, and as they are off to Limerick…
Salopians once went to Limerick
To pass a ball to a boy who could kick.
In ninety-mile winds
It went to the Finns
Which ended the game awful quick!
I will try again.
Celebrating a try far too soon
Stuart Brown ended up a buffoon
But he played hard on tour
And scored more and more
So his teammates were over the moon.
If anyone would like to offer us their own Limerick (to firstname.lastname@example.org) I suspect we could rustle up a prize for the best and it may even beat my efforts!