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Rugby laying down roots in north London

05 February 2013

  • Talented youngsters Paul and Cecil love the game and its camaraderie
  • St Aloysius’ fostering strong links with local clubs
Left to right, Paul Aguele, Alistair Halsall, Cecil MacCarthy of St Aloysius’ College

Photo: RFU Archive

The RFU is keen that the game of rugby union should capture interest in every part of England, and to understand this idea in practice, just spend an afternoon in the company of Cecil MacCarthy and Paul Aguele, two rugby playing 16-year-olds from north London.

The boys attend St Aloysius’ College, a Catholic boys’ comprehensive school in Highgate, in the borough of Camden on the borders with two other inner-city boroughs Haringey and Islington.

Heavy traffic on the busy Archway Road is speeding past just a hefty drop-kick away but the topic of conversation for these students is the fun and opportunities offered by rugby at a school where football used to be the dominant winter sport.

Strong links between schools and their local rugby clubs are central to the RFU’s strategy for increasing interest in the game, and Paul is playing at fly half for Finchley RFC’s A team in his age group while Cecil turns out for Saracens Amateurs RFC and he has secured a place in London Wasps’ elite player development group.

As a promising prop forward, Cecil has been picked at county level too and he recently scored a try for Middlesex Under 16s.

They are among the advance guard of players steered into London clubs by Alistair Halsall, the head of sport at St Aloysius’.

“Rugby is channelling my energies in the right place,” said Cecil, who has shown considerable talent for basketball and field athletics in the shot-put, hammer and discus.

“I went on a rugby tour with the school to Italy in 2009 and it was the first time I’d come across a sport where you were expected to have a meal with the opposition after the match.

“We learnt what it is like to respect the referee and shake hands with opponents at the end of the game.”

Cecil’s family is from Ghana, and Paul – who is the head boy at St Aloysius’ and is goalkeeper in the football team – has a Nigerian background. He sees differences in rugby to what he encountered playing for a south London professional football club’s under 14s.

Changing perspectives

“The environment in rugby is like one big family,” said Paul, who played the non-contact tag version of rugby when he was at primary school in Hornsey, and subsequently joined Kilburn Cosmos RFC.

“Friends say to me, rugby is for posh kids. There is no doubt it has been seen as a white boy’s sport. I think that is changing and it’s getting better and you only have to look at me and the other boys at St Aloysius’ who are playing rugby now to see the changes.

“We have all got to challenge the stereotypes.”

Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes so while it is a perfect fit for the sturdily-built Cecil in a way other sports may not be, Paul has found his place too, among the backs.

And the game fits the boys’ mental needs as well as their physical ones. “Cecil has brute strength but he is a very nice, well-mannered guy,” said Halsall, a Scot who is first team coach at Hampstead RFC and introduced rugby to St Aloysius’ five years ago.

“He is now in line to receive a scholarship for his sixth-form studies to Mount St Mary’s College in Derbyshire, based on his rugby.

“His parents have always seen rugby as a good thing but now it has also opened up a different path in his education.”

At this stage in their rugby development, St Aloysius’ do not have a packed fixture list in the way traditional rugby schools do.

They won an Emerging Schools competition in Cecil’s age group a couple of years ago, and attend festivals wherever they can, while coping with the challenging cost and logistics of travelling around London.

In school time the concentration is on improving tackling, contact skills and learning about scrums and line-outs, with those showing most aptitude guided to Hampstead RFC and other clubs.

“The rugby culture was very alien to the boys when rugby started here,” Halsall said. “They were more used to just skulking off at the end of the game than shaking hands.

“Now they are champing at the bit to play rugby and keep fit and they are keen to get into the social side of the game as well. It is very much accepted as part of the school, and boys like Cecil have such a huge presence inside and outside school. The other pupils look up to him and Paul.

“They have friends from all sorts of backgrounds, and like any lads at a London comprehensive school, they face choices that could take them in different directions and possibly into trouble, depending on them, their friends and their family.

“Cecil has learnt that he’s noticeable and he and Paul are on a similar path, they conduct themselves with class and all they talk about is rugby.”

 

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