How Harpenden rugby players are taking on the world
PUBLISHED: 15:16 27 February 2017 | UPDATED: 15:16 27 February 2017
© Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo
The Six Nations rugby tournament kicks off this month with an England team in near-unbeatable form. At the core of the men's team is a trio of former Harpenden players, while fly-half in the women's national squad is also an ex-Harp. And there's more in the wings. Neil Metcalfe looks at how this small club is producing world-beaters
Ask rugby fans to name a hotbed of the sport and they would probably say New Zealand or South Africa. Ask them to name somewhere in this country and you might hear them mention Leicester or the south west. It’s unlikely they’ll say Harpenden. And yet the town, its schools and Harpenden RFC are responsible for supplying a solid stream of Rugby Union talent to the international stage.
The national squad’s success last year, when the team won all 13 games played, including beating the Wallabies three times on a tour of Australia, systematically taking apart South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia in the autumn internationals and claiming the Six Nations grand slam, was down in no small part to the trio of Owen Farrell, George Ford and Maro Itoje, all of whom went to St George’s School in Harpenden as well as turning out for the town’s Redbourn Lane club.
Look beyond the senior squad and you’ll find other Harpenden players who have found international recognition too. Jack Singleton was a member of the victorious England side that won the U20 Rugby World Championship in Manchester last summer. Another former Harp, Ralph Adams-Hale, just missed out on that squad but is in line to be a big part of the defence in Georgia in July.
And it’s not just the men. Sarah McKenna, a product of Roundwood Park School and Grove Junior School both in Harpenden and a youth player for the town club where her dad coached the minis, was part of the England women’s sevens squad last year. The 27-year-old from Welwyn is hoping to be included in the 15-a-side team during the Six Nations this month.
So what makes this west Herts club so popular and so successful? Harpenden RFU president Peter Danby is matter-of-fact.
‘I think we are seen as a genuine grassroots club that looks after the players well and when people move into the area that is something that attracts them.
‘We want people to enjoy their time at the club. That way, they may just come back after they have finished their professional careers.’
Peter says having the likes of former England internationals Andy Farrell and Mike Ford bringing their sons Owen and George to the club was a big help in establishing its credentials, as is the close link with Premiership champions Saracens, based in north London.
Having former England fly-half and Saracens talent scout Charlie Hodgson in charge of your U10s doesn’t hurt either (his son plays for the team – perhaps another one to watch).
But the president knows the club cannot rest on its laurels, something that won’t happen while he is in charge.
‘We want to be a club for all ages and gender,’ he says. ‘We are looking at improving the facilities, such as the changing rooms, and we have 19 acres of land, which we own, so there is plenty of space to play.
‘We are constantly looking at moving ahead and even though we roughly stay at the same level (the London North West Two league), we move up in all sorts of ways.’
He has seen much talent at the club and has first-hand experience of seeing Owen Farrell in the junior section. He says he was always likely to make the grade.
‘My son is the same age as Owen. He came to us as a 13-year-old and I think he found it hard at first. He had lived his life in Wigan before that, a northern Rugby League town.
‘I used to run the touch and Owen would be out an hour before the game practising his kicking. He always looked like he had the talent to succeed.’
When it’s mentioned that I interviewed one of the club’s favourite sons, Jack Singleton for this feature, there’s a noticeable sense of pride from the president. Jack started playing rugby at Harpenden when he was seven and spent 10 years at the club before moving on to the U18s at Saracens.
He has now landed at Worcester Warriors and after working his way through the ranks, the 21-year-old made his first team debut, and first Aviva Premiership start, in the last two months of 2016.
But he hasn’t forgotten his roots and acknowledges the influence Harpenden has had on his flourishing career, even if in the beginning he was unaware of where it might lead.
‘I didn’t know at the time,’ he reflects. ‘Back then it was just about playing with your best mates. There was always a good atmosphere down there on a Sunday. It was always good fun and I never wanted to leave for a roast dinner. I was staying until three, four o’clock, having been there since eight.’
He says it was seeing the talent of future England stars at the club and their career trajectory that spurred him on.
‘As I started to get older, I saw the likes of Owen and Maro playing and saw the things they were doing and you realised you can actually do it too, if you put your mind to it. You see them playing club rugby, knowing they’re from the same place as you, and also knowing them as people is pretty cool.’
What’s his take on the Harpenden England rugby production line? He just laughs.
‘It is pretty ridiculous but some of that just comes from the enjoyment of it. It’s quite a close-knit club where everyone knows everyone. It’s not a massive club. My dad was closely involved, which meant I was always part of what was going on there. We always went to the events. Being a small town probably played a part in the success.’
He is also quick to praise the standard of coaching, even though all the coaches are volunteers.
‘I had quite a few coaches at Harpenden. Up until U12s, we only had one and from there they started to mix it around with a lot of dads helping out. My dad was always involved throughout every age group. But from U15 onwards we had a guy called Robin Longland, who also coached my brother’s age group. He was the last coach I had at the club but having my dad help out and run sessions was a huge influence.’
It may be small and run by volunteers but there’s something very special going on in this little Herts town. As the adage goes, success breeds success, and in the rugby world Harpenden is creating a generation of players wearing the England rose. Think about that as the Twickenham roar goes up for the start of the Six Nations.