Schools rugby: The difficulties facing Wilmslow High during the coronavirus crisis

Wilmslow High are one of many schools across the country hopeful of a January start date for rugby
©WHS / Nathan Rushton

We all know it has been an extremely difficult time for so many people. The coronavirus pandemic continues to shape the way we live our lives and over the last couple of weeks, even professional sport - which may have seemed impenetrable at times - has been struck once again by the virus.

In football, Liverpool stars Sadio Mane and Thiago Alcantara both missed a Premier League fixture after contracting COVID-19 whilst in rugby, the impact has been more significant. Several positive cases within the Sale Sharks camp denied Steve Diamond’s side the opportunity to challenge for the Gallagher Premiership title this season and earlier this week, Wasps faced an anxious wait to see whether they could avoid the same fate.

As the headlines focus on the top of the game, the lifeblood of the sport is still suffering. With no competitive matches able to take place until at least January, community clubs and university teams continue to train and show their resilience in the hope that grassroots rugby can return to some normality in the New Year.

School rugby falls under that bracket, too. Students up and down the country have not had the chance to compete on a Wednesday afternoon or a Saturday morning due to the pandemic. Now, the institutions themselves are not only battling to keep players engaged in the sport, but they are also in an environment where containing any transmission of the virus is the number one priority.

At Wilmslow High School in Cheshire, that is very much the case with approximately 2,500 people on-site each day, but sport, and rugby in particular, continues to be high on the agenda despite the current climate.

“Our boys and girls need their sport in school,” says Nathan Rushton, who heads up the rugby programme at WHS. “We are doing our best to provide them with that outlet away from homework, exams and revision so they can let off some steam. At the minute, it can feel like you are just training with no games to look forward to which is why we are trying to be as creative as possible in our sessions to avoid them going stale.

The rugby programme at WHS has been far from ‘stale’ in recent years, with the state school achieving success in national cup competitions as well as developing players who have gone on to take steps in the professional game. Sam and Luke James are just two of the names to come through Wilmslow and Rushton admits the number of current students taking up the sport is still encouraging.

“Our numbers are up,” says Rushton. “Year 7 and 8, we are getting around 100 kids, boys and girls, across the two years groups taking part in rugby. Year 9 and 10 we have got decent numbers and seniors [Year 11 to 13], I have got 54 players on my register which is the most we have ever had since I have been here over the last five years”.

So how are Rushton and WHS staff keeping students engaged in rugby? “What we have done is we have made a partnership with ‘Starting XV’, a coaching company run by Rick Spencer who is ex-Sale Sharks.

"We have now brought in a coach three nights a week so we have got external coaches coming in to support PE staff using the money that we would usually have spent on transport, whilst also investing in new equipment and facilities etc. Yes, we can’t get playing but we can improve our coaching offer, improve our equipment and improve our delivery style to keep it fresh for the students.”

After October half-term, Rushton is hoping to introduce a ‘Games Night’ for Year 7 and 8 students which will see them take part in an internal touch rugby cup competition, but between Year 9 and 13, Wilmslow continue to operate within the school and RFU guidelines.

The reality is rugby as we know it may not take place at all at junior level because WHS run their programme from September up until Christmas, but they are still eager to arrange some friendlies against local schools at the beginning of 2021 if the possibility arises. As for the senior teams, four fixtures have potentially been scheduled (restrictions pending) and Rushton is also keen for a mini cup competition to be introduced in order to keep students interested between now and the end of the school year.

“What I’d like to see is some form of cup tournament after Christmas to dangle a carrot for senior students. If they walk away from this year without having played a competitive game which means something, they will be disappointed so let's see what happens."