- RFUtv looks at Tooting school's stunning NatWest Schools Cup run
- "We’re all good friends; that’s our biggest strength" – flanker Tyrell John
To have a successful school rugby team, you would expect an established place on the curriculum and pitch to train on to be prerequisites. But despite lacking both of these seeming essentials, Graveney School from Tooting will run out at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday to compete for the NatWest Schools Cup U15 Vase.
The committed and inspiring youngsters – who go through team moves in full school uniform at lunchtimes – adopt a “band of brothers” mentality on field, which they believe is the secret to their remarkable run of results.
For forwards Kareem Swandells, a tight-head prop, and Tyrell John, blind-side flanker, playing at Twickenham genuinely felt beyond their wildest dreams at the start of a campaign which has seen them sweep past a host of schools with rich rugby traditions.
And when you see the players steam around the pitch at local club Old Rutlishians, a 15-minute drive from the school, and watch how they act with each other, how they achieved the chance to play at the Home of England Rugby becomes as clear as their regular margins of victory.
Photo: Getty Images
“We’re really together as a team, we’re always together at our club or school so we know each other in and out and play for each other,” said Kareem.
Tyrell concurred, adding: “If you have a team and you’re not really friends, the chemistry isn’t there, even if you’re good players. We’re all good friends – that’s our biggest strength.”
The team is coached by Anastacia Long, the only female head coach left in the U15 and U18 competition. While her pastoral mentoring of the players – they describe her as “an aunt and a friend” – has been important, focusing just on that would do a disservice to the quality of their rugby.
Schools rugby giants Whitgift, who boast Marland Yarde, Danny Ciprani and Elliot Daly among their glittering alumni, only just sneaked past Graveney 29-26 in the early rounds, with Long rueing their inexperience at that stage.
“The boys have improved so much with each game; they’ve worked on the things that have not gone so well and kept up the things that have gone well,” she said, adding that her “bonkers” players are a pleasure to coach and spend time with.
“Their performances have improved every single match, which has been invaluable for us as a team because we’ve gone from a two out of ten to a seven or an eight out of ten now, and we couldn’t have done that with no training and no rugby on the curriculum.
Photo: Getty Images
“The performance we were most proud of was getting so close to Whitgift. If we played them again now it could be a very different game. We were only three games into the tournament at that stage and we were very naïve, we went 14-0 down very early on but defensively we’re much more organised now and we make more of the opportunities we get when we do have the ball. We showed that in the semi final; we played off turnover ball and it worked.”
Long worked hard to establish a club-school link with Old Ruts and with the whole team also playing rugby there, the mutually beneficial relationship is producing results, on and off the field.
She continued: “Having the link with Old Ruts has been brilliant because all the boys play at the same club together, so they’re used to playing in exactly the same style, they’re very good friends and that helps because they really play for each other.
“We’ve overcome some huge obstacles, which I suppose has made the achievement even more remarkable because we’ve not had it all handed on a plate to us, and they’ve all really enjoyed it as a result.
“Rugby has absolutely changed some of their lives and opened their eyes up to a completely different world. For some it has taken them out of a pathway which would lead the wrong way, for others it has created a social environment that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
“Some of them stayed in a hotel for the first time when we played in the semi-final. Going to some of the other schools and seeing some of the facilities, they had only been at Graveney and thought that all schools were like that. But what I like is that they do not take it negatively, they don’t start whinging and moaning that we don’t have this and we don’t have that, they just say ‘isn’t it great that we’re doing what we’re doing with what we’ve got.’”
Photo: Getty Images
England’s star performer from the RBS 6 Nations, Mike Brown, was also on hand to check out the team’s progress. For Kareem and Tyrell it was a “weird but fun experience” as the Harlequins full back took them through receiving high-balls and exploiting overlaps in unseasonably cold March weather.
Having seen the kids close-up and watched their highlights reel, Brown has no doubt a team blending passion and searing pace can overcome Altrincham Grammar School in the all-state final.
“They’re all keen and enthusiastic in this horrible weather, they’ve all got great skills, they’re all natural when they’re moving the ball around,” said the RBS 6 Nations Man of the Tournament.
“There's a bit of gas out there too, luckily they haven’t asked me for a race, I’m not sure I could beat these young kids.
“For me it would’ve been a dream come true [to play at Twickenham at this age]so hopefully they’ll feel the same with all the history that Twickenham holds. They can definitely win it. From what I saw of their highlights reel earlier, with the gas they’ve got, they can push any team.”
Neatly summing up what this whole experience has done, Kareem spoke about what rugby means to him: “I don’t know what I would be doing if I was not playing rugby; I’ve gained confidence and made so many friends.”
Whether Graveney win or lose on Saturday, you get the sense these youngsters, and their coach, will look back on what they’ve achieved with immense pride.
NatWest Schools Cup Finals Day, March 29 - free entry
U15 Vase: Altrincham Grammar School v Graveney School – 11am
U15 Cup: QEGS Wakefield v Warwick School – 12.30pm
U18 Vase: Exeter College v Trent College – 2pm
U18 Cup: Warwick School v Dulwich College – 3.40pm