Just as every school sports coach remembers their outstanding students, then so those players who go on to perform at the very highest level recall the pearls of wisdom that were imparted to them at an early age from their first coaches and teachers.
For those members of the England rugby team, it’s no different. Take Maro Itoje, for example, a key member of Eddie Jones’ squad during a thrilling Six Nations campaign.
“For me, it’s probably about making sure you have a good work ethic – I think I learnt that fairly early on,” says the England lock. “If you work hard and you do what needs to be done then, more often than not, you’ll do alright. You always need to put yourself in the best possible place.”
Harry Williams, his international team-mate and a debutant during this winter’s Six Nations concurs.
“My school coach told me to just try and get better every year,” he says. “So I set myself new goals and just try and get better that way.”
It has certainly worked. Not too long ago, Williams was playing for the Jersey Reds in the Channel Islands – now he’s rubbing shoulders with some of the finest players in world rugby in one of the sport’s most demanding championships.
Itoje, born in London to Nigerian parents, was educated at Harrow and, as well as having a life-long passion for opera, also hit the high notes in athletics. Indeed, so proficient was he with a shot-put in his hands that he had to make the choice between focusing on rugby or throwing his weight behind a career in athletics. Fortunately for England, he chose the latter.
“He leaves no stone unturned in the way we prepare and the way we recover. Everything we do is done to the very highest level and that’s fed down from him to the coaches, to the backroom staff, physios, you name it.”
“It was tough but rugby was always just a bit more fun,” says the 23-year-old. “It’s a lot more of a social sport. Athletics is quite individual and, to be honest, shot put could get pretty boring – you’re throwing a metal ball as far as you can. It’s pretty repetitive. The honest answer is that I was miles better at rugby than I was the other ones [sports] as well.”
It hasn’t been plain sailing for England in this Six Nations, with comfortable victories over Wales at Twickenham and Italy in Rome, proceeding a first defeat to Scotland in a decade at Murrayfield.
That match typified the topsy-turvy nature of this year’s tournament but also served to illustrate just how competitive and unrelenting the Six Nations can be. A fact not lost on Jonathan Joseph, the England and Bath centre, and another graduate of the fabled Millfield School in Somerset.
He, though, believes England have the ultimate advantage over the rest, thanks to the brilliance of coach Eddie Jones, who has suffered just two defeats in 26 Tests since taking over from Stuart Lancaster in November 2015.
“He tries to get the very best out of us, both individually and as a team,” he says. “He leaves no stone unturned in the way we prepare and the way we recover. Everything we do is done to the very highest level and that’s fed down from him to the coaches, to the backroom staff, physios, you name it.”
Their school days may be behind him but Joseph, Williams and Itoje, it seems, are still learning.
England’s stars were speaking at a new kit launch for Canterbury.