The Autumn Internationals are in full swing and there is a phenomenal wealth of talent on display, but one school which must be feeling particular pride is Millfield. Situated in Somerset, the school boasts four ex-students in the current England set-up: Captain Chris Robshaw, Anthony Allen, Jonathan Joseph and Mako Vunipola. The school’s record of producing talent is outstanding with over 20 students playing professionally, dispersed around the Aviva Premiership, the RFU Championship, the RaboDirect Pro 12 league and various high-level academies.
So what’s the secret behind Millfield’s success? Excellent resources and coaching staff obviously play a part but, after having the pleasure of talking to First Team Coach, Jon Brimacombe, it was clear to see that the school has an underlying philosophy of how students should play. “Millfield rugby encourages boys to play with the ball in their hands and to make decisions about the situation in front of them”. There is a freedom to this approach which has a refreshing focus, not only on enjoyment and expression, but it is accommodating to those new to the sport.
It was slightly surprising to find out that, “many players have absolutely no background in rugby”. However it was quickly made clear how this coincides with Millfield’s belief around the sport, “they choose rugby because they recognise the likelihood that they might enjoy playing it here”.
There is an element of risk in this approach as Jon was ready to highlight, but it is clear from their success that Millfield breeds top sportsmen. So to what extent has the school had an effect on their current internationals in terms of influence and development? Aside from their natural skills, was Millfield the catalyst to their success? England and Leicester Tigers centre, Anthony Allen, kindly spared a few minutes of his time to answer these questions.
Allen’s experience relates to Millfield’s belief around the freedom to play the sport, “I managed to achieve all I wanted to at that age in both my rugby and my education with the flexibility and understanding of the school”. While Anthony already knew he wanted to play professionally, the school provided the perfect balance between rugby and education.
In addition to being the catalyst to his career it seems to have provided the focus and grounding for him to succeed, “I knew I wanted to play professionally before going to Millfield. It was just that Millfield was the best option for me to try and achieve that as well as getting all the right help and guidance with my education alongside it”.
Millfield certainly had a great impact on the development of Vunipola and Joseph. As Brimacombe recalls, “Mako Vunipola spent most of his first year of senior rugby in the second team. He simply lacked the level of fitness that we require to play our game. However when he became fitter his handling, footwork, physicality and sheer joy at playing rugby had a huge influence on our squad”.
It wasn’t a clear road for Joseph either. “He had a very modest first season until we reached the sevens. From there his improvement was stratospheric”. As Director of Rugby, John Mallett, a former England International himself, pointed out, “It is worth remembering for all aspiring rugby players these stars have not always been destined for the top”.
Millfield’s success is undeniable in terms of developing players. Nevertheless you would think a future international Captain would stand out above the crowd. I put this question to Brimacombe regarding the England captain, “Chris Robshaw stood out for his attitude and selflessness. He was a good player, who was committed to improving, but I would not have seen him as a future England captain. It is wonderful to see him reach such heights; nobody deserves it more than him”. It is consistent performances for Harlequins embodying Millfield’s style of play that have led Robshaw to where he is now, so as he leads England out at Twickenham on Saturday, the giddy heights will be a friendly reminder to all the hard work behind him.
Does Millfield have something special about it? The answer is no, something which John Mallett was quick to reaffirm, “There is no magic answer. We have a proud sporting history as a school and we have lots of children who are passionate about playing sport, a good number of whom are rugby players. These children are encouraged to follow their passion and to enjoy what they do as a part of their school education. An expressive, yet grounded approach that encourages enjoyment continues to benefit Millfield’s outstanding record of producing Rugby players of the highest quality.”
By Jono Frank