Mouth of the Tyne: Rugby World Cup can see success of Harpenden St George's happen to all schools and clubs

PUBLISHED: 07:07 01 November 2019

England's Ben Youngs (right), Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje and George Ford prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match at Oita Stadium, Oita, Japan. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA

England's Ben Youngs (right), Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje and George Ford prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match at Oita Stadium, Oita, Japan. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA

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England are prepared to take on South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final and should they be successful then it would see Owen Farrell, one of three former Harpenden St George's pupils in the team, lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy. Herts Advertiser's Neil Metcalfe gives his take on the phenomenal talent factory at the Sun Lane school and looks ahead to what could be a wonderful day and more.

Craig Russell is now a sports therapist at Sunderland. Picture: MIKE EGERTON/PACraig Russell is now a sports therapist at Sunderland. Picture: MIKE EGERTON/PA

I went to school with Craig Russell.

Now, instantly I know that 99.9 per cent of people in Hertfordshire are reading this and saying who? That's fair enough. Unless you're a die-hard Sunderland fan you probably wouldn't know him.

Craig Russell in 1998 when he was with Manchester City. Picture: DAVE KENDALL/PACraig Russell in 1998 when he was with Manchester City. Picture: DAVE KENDALL/PA

But he was a big deal to us in South Tyneside, going on to play 150 times for his boyhood team and score 31 goals, before moves to Manchester City, St Johnstone, Carlisle United and finally Darlington.

He was proud of his record as he always reminds us "not many people can claim to have scored goals at Old Trafford and Celtic Park".

Sunderland's Craig Russell (left) celebrates his goal with teammate Michael Gray after scoring against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1996. Picture: PETER WILCOCK/PASunderland's Craig Russell (left) celebrates his goal with teammate Michael Gray after scoring against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 1996. Picture: PETER WILCOCK/PA

The point is though that sporting success hasn't always been associated with St Joseph's Comprehensive School in Hebburn. To Craig you can add the names of Brendan Foster, Phil Brown and Aidan McCaffery but that's it really.

You can't say that about Harpenden St George's, however, who will proudly watch as three of their former pupils take to the field in Yokohama when England play South Africa in the Rugby World Cup final.

England's Owen Farrell (left), Dylan Hartley and Maro Itoje arrive at Twickenham Stadium, London, before the autumn international with South Africa in 2018. Picture: ANDREW MATTHEWS/PAEngland's Owen Farrell (left), Dylan Hartley and Maro Itoje arrive at Twickenham Stadium, London, before the autumn international with South Africa in 2018. Picture: ANDREW MATTHEWS/PA

Maro Itoje, George Ford and Owen Farrell are the three who will start on Saturday and a fourth old Georgian, Jack Singleton, will watch on from the stands as part of the 31-man squad, now 32 following an injury, that has battled through to the showpiece occasion.

It is incredible to think that just one school, and a state school at that, can have such an impact and be responsible for the progression of what are three very important players in Eddie Jones's team.

England's Owen Farrell and George Ford (right) during the training session at Pennyhill Park, Bagshot. Picture: ADAM DAVY/PAEngland's Owen Farrell and George Ford (right) during the training session at Pennyhill Park, Bagshot. Picture: ADAM DAVY/PA

I spoke to head of rugby at the school, Neil Harris, way back in 2016 just after Itoje had been selected for the first time. He told me that the kids at the school still look up to those players and often ask if he coached them.

He added: "They look up to them and they talk about them. They are really strong role models.

Jason Robinson celebrates scoring his try for England against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PAJason Robinson celebrates scoring his try for England against Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA

"We sometimes forget we are quite a small school. We only have 80 to 90 on average per year but we keep managing to find these lads."

So for the school the success of the England team, and their role in it, will be a huge feather in the cap and should lead to an upsurge in popularity in the sport.

England's Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop goal to clinch the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PAEngland's Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop goal to clinch the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA

But it is not just that the school that could benefit from the exposure England's run to the final has given the sport. St George's have links with Harpenden Rugby Club and other clubs from around the county are bracing themselves for an influx of players, eager to give the game a go and emulate their new heroes.

The sport could do it with it too. While not in its death throes, it certainly doesn't command the popularity it once did. Gone are the days when most clubs would regularly field three or more sides.

(L-R) England's Jonny Wilkinson, Richard Hill, Mark Regan and Kyran Bracken show off the Webb Ellis Cup as the team go on an open-topped bus tour through London to celebrate winning the 2003 World Cup. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA(L-R) England's Jonny Wilkinson, Richard Hill, Mark Regan and Kyran Bracken show off the Webb Ellis Cup as the team go on an open-topped bus tour through London to celebrate winning the 2003 World Cup. Picture: DAVID DAVIES/PA

But the World Cup will help as it did in 2003.

What a day that was by the way. A similarly early start, the celebrations went on long into the night and how I managed to run around a rugby field in the afternoon I'll never know. Felt like a kid again, charging into the streets moments after the final whistle to recreate an FA Cup final.

But my club, Jarrovians, noticed the increase in numbers after the win in Australia and we are just a small, grassroots outfit.

There's a similar feel this time around too and if England can pull it off, we will certainly see the legacy hand schools and clubs a boost.

Maybe then St Joseph's can get a little bit closer to St George's in the list of famous sporting former pupils.

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