The institutions responsible for developing England’s rugby league and union athletes.
In a breathtakingly beautiful setting, hundreds of students trade their traditional green tweed blazers for athletic attire four afternoons a week to partake in rugby, football, netball, and hockey lessons. However, rugby reigns supreme at Sedbergh, renowned as one of England’s top schools for sports.
40 students in their final year of school divided into two groups, forwards and backs, to train on their holy fields with beautiful views of the Howgills mountains and next to their modern indoor sports facility. These facilities would be coveted by many professional teams.
You do not need to have been to Sedbergh to know what it looks like. Think of the school campus in Dead Poets Society or Catcher in the Rye. Sedbergh, which sits on the western edge of the Yorkshire Dales, brands itself “England’s book town”. But the school’s manicured pitches lie among lush tufty fields that encroach on the town centre and a dozen sets of towering white posts poke up among the grey rooftops as if to declare: “This is rugby town.”
Many skilled rugby players are developed in this rural area. The Sedbergh School Football Club, founded in 1879 and nicknamed “The Brown” for their unique uniform, has a level of success comparable to the top academies at major clubs in any sport. Simon Mulholland, who has been the school’s rugby director for 11 years, believes they are among the top schools for producing professional players. The fact that the school is fully residential allows for a constant focus on rugby, with games being played throughout the day. The rugby culture is ingrained in the school and it is truly a remarkable place.
Flourishing in the modern age of professional sports, there are alumni from this school playing in various top leagues across Europe. Notably, Old Sedberghians have been selected to represent their respective countries of England (Bevan Rodd), Scotland (Cam Redpath), Wales (Jim Botham), and Ireland within the last year.
Castleford, a town in the old West Riding, is located eighty miles away. Despite being socially, culturally, and aesthetically distinct from other counties, it is home to one of the country’s top rugby centers. Castleford Academy, a state comprehensive school that received an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted, has won a remarkable 53 titles in the RFL’s Champion Schools competitions. This impressive record challenges the status of Sedbergh as England’s most successful rugby school.
At both of these schools in Yorkshire, students begin their time by playing rugby. This sets the tone for their future activities. The main contrast is that the majority of students at Sedbergh pay £40,000 annually for boarding. According to Mulholland, who hails from New Zealand and was recently named coach of the decade by NextGenXV, most boys come to Sedbergh for the rugby program.
“We currently have a total of 380 male students, which may not seem like a large number, but unlike other schools where the number of boys interested in playing rugby is declining, our numbers are actually increasing. As a result, we have to schedule additional matches for them. Our school schedule revolves around sports, with games taking place during the day in winter and lessons being held from 4pm to 6pm when it gets dark.”
Sedbergh offers an intensive training program of five on-field sessions per week, along with analysis and strength and conditioning work. It functions as a high-level, full-time academy. According to Mulholland, around 30 of the sixth form students are part of Premiership academies, with Sale, Newcastle, and Yorkshire being their main sources. However, they also have pupils at other clubs such as Saracens, Cardiff, and Edinburgh, as well as a few in rugby league clubs. The academy has established a strong communication system with these clubs to manage the students’ workload. During the months of September to December, school remains the top priority for the pupils. They may only attend Sale or Newcastle twice a month during this time, but after Christmas, they will go at least once a week, and potentially more if they are not involved in sevens or 10s for the academy. The challenge arises when these students reach an international level, as there may be scheduling conflicts.
Cas Academy has players enrolled in five Super League academies, but their school teams only have one hour of training per week and no evaluations or workout plans. According to PE teacher Danny Holmes, who has led the school to over a dozen national finals after playing on their team in three, students with scholarships at professional clubs have the option to use the fitness facilities on their own. He also notes that some students may already be training twice a week with their local clubs and twice with their professional club, making an additional session with the school team too demanding.
The school was established in 1906 and although Henry Moore, a sculptor, is its most renowned former student, David Stephens and Alan Rhodes also rose to fame as league players. During that time, the school was a grammar school and exclusively played union. Many graduates have gone on to play for various English Super League teams, such as Cameron Smith, captain of the Leeds Rhinos, Greg Eden, a former player for the Brisbane Broncos, and Hollie-Mae Dodd of the Canberra Raiders, who led her team to four consecutive Champion Schools titles.
Sedbergh provides scholarships and bursaries to exceptional young athletes whose families may not be able to afford the high fees. However, the majority of students pay for a unique experience that includes weekly trips to games across the country and an international tour in their final year. Out of the school’s 12 teams, five are specifically for sixth-form students. According to Mulholland, whose brother-in-law is the newly appointed coach for the All Blacks, the first team receives national recognition. Due to the frequent traveling, the team spends a lot of time together and has developed a tight-knit, familial atmosphere. The players take great pride in wearing “the Brown armour,” as it is affectionately known.
In comparison, Cas Academy does not offer a program for high school seniors as most of their students go to college at age 16. Unlike Sedbergh, the school is limited in recruiting rugby talent. According to Holmes, who coached five teams last year, the school’s catchment area has decreased, making it difficult for students to choose Cas Academy specifically for rugby. However, rugby does have a positive impact on students and can help them get back on track. This is why Holmes sets high expectations for students, but he clarifies that the school is not focused on being an elite rugby performance institution.
Although Sedbergh is primarily known as a stronghold for union, it has strong ties to league as well. Mulholland is a self-proclaimed fan of the NRL, and Graham, a halfback for Keighley Cougars, was recruited by Hull FC after an impressive performance for Sedbergh in a sevens tournament. Additionally, several former league players have chosen to send their children to play for The Brown. The Wavell Wakefield Pavilion, named after a former student who was a staunch supporter of amateurism during his time as RFU president, displays the names of all international players produced by the school. Alongside notable names like Carling, Greenwood, and Simpson-Daniel, one can find Ewan Dowes, who represented England in rugby league seven times. Dowes, now a Challenge Cup winner, continues to attend events for Sedbergh alumni.
If Sedbergh were to participate in the 13-a-side tournaments, how would their reputation for thrilling rugby hold up? Mulholland responds with a grin, “That’s a great question.” He believes that their style of play and overall abilities would be well-suited for the competition. Their attack would do well and the physicality would be an exciting test.
These two West Riding towns have another key difference. While rugby is at the very heart of school life at Sedbergh – boys train in the school’s gym at night while others hurl Hail Marys across the playground, challenging each other to catch them in the dark – the town has no rugby club. In Castleford, rugby league is engrained in the fabric of a community immersed in league. The sport is an identifier, a symbol of civic pride.
Holmes, a Cas lad and former student, often gets asked about the reason behind our success. He believes it’s due to our culture, as kids are immersed in it from a young age. It’s not uncommon to see half the school at Cas Tigers, accompanied by their parents. With a rugby ball in hand from a young age, the culture is ingrained in them by the time they start at our school. They are prepared and eager for it.
“They have a strong passion for rugby, and reaching the finals is a special experience that brings joy to their faces and showcases their pride in the school. It’s a highly sought-after opportunity and I frequently receive requests at my door asking if we will be practicing. From 3pm to 4pm every day, our extra-curricular activities revolve around rugby for many students. However, for some, it’s dance or drama – in fact, Cas Academy has even had the chance to perform at the prestigious National Theatre.”
In a period where most 15-year-olds express a negative attitude towards school and a significant portion of them regularly miss class, schools like Sedbergh and Cas Academy are providing students with the chance to excel in rugby and presenting them with remarkable opportunities.
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