Ever since their formation, Newcastle Falcons have made a habit of providing the England rugby union team with talented backs. Teenager Rory Clegg is tipped to be one of the best yet, writes Stuart Rayner
LIKE the number nine shirt at St James’s Park, so a number ten on the back of a Newcastle Falcons rugby jersey carries with it an air of mystique.
While successive Newcastle United centre-forwards have to try to live up to the exploits of legendary figures like Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer, so the Falcons fly-half has a tough act to follow.
The first regular occupant of the Falcons number ten shirt, England legend Rob Andrew, set the standards pretty high before seeing them surpassed by the man he discovered to replace him, Jonny Wilkinson. At first it looked as though the torch would be passed to Toby Flood but a new protegé has now emerged.
With Wilkinson a regular in the Kingston Park treatment room ever since he famously kicked England to World Cup glory in 2003, it was a brave decision by the club to allow Flood, his understudy for club and country, to join their Premiership rivals Leicester in the summer. The main reason they did so was a schoolchild by the name of Rory Clegg.
Even at that tender age, Clegg was well-known in rugby circles as an international star of the future. As is so often the case in sport, fate has conspired to give the latest graduate of Barnard Castle’s School prodigious rugby production line his chance ahead of schedule. Flood’s departure, coupled with a dislocated knee suffered by Wilkinson at Gloucester in September, has seen the 18-year-old thrown into front-line duties and he has taken to the responsibility well.
Former Falcons academy director and director of rugby John Fletcher has long been aware of Clegg’s abilities and having taken him on England Under-18s’ summer tour of Argentina, he expects the youngster to excel now and not just in the future.
“It’s probably ahead of schedule for Rory,” he says. “He’s flavour of the month but he’s certainly capable of coping with it. He lacks a bit physically and in terms of maturity but he’s an exceptionally-talented player, well grounded and from a good family.
“He’s played for the England age groups all the way through and he’s in the Under-20s squad one year early. He’s done very well and he’ll be an exceptionally good player.
“We (the Falcons) picked Rory up at 14. He missed a whole year with a knee injury but he’s come back well from it and he’s going to be an exceptional player for Newcastle and England.
“People in the game have been aware of Cleggy for a lot of years. It’s just that since he’s been playing for the first team this season (Clegg made his debut on the opening day against Sale Sharks), the rugby Press have jumped on the bandwagon.”
As Wilkinson had with Andrew, his Falcons boss up to and beyond his heroics in the Telstra Stadium, Clegg has the good fortune of a mentor to learn from
on Newcastle’s Druid Park training
“The bond Rory forms with Jonny will be important for his long-term development,” explains Fletcher’s successor as Falcons director of rugby, Steve Bates. “But it’s also important that Rory develops as a unique player in his own right. It’s about him saying, I’m Rory Clegg and I’m learning a bit from Jonny, but I’m also learning a bit from that experience and I’m learning a bit from that coach. He needs to be Rory Clegg, not another Jonny Wilkinson and I’m sure he will be.
“Rory is a fast learner and I’ve no doubt he will learn everything he needs to quickly enough to cope with the obvious demands of the Guinness Premiership. Considering he was still 18, I thought he was outstanding on his debut. Against a back line full of international players he did exceptionally well, stuck to the gameplan and executed a lot of that very well.”