North East schools rugby is to the fore on Thursday when Durham School host Barnard Castle in the sixth round of the National Schools Cup.
Now rebranded as the Natwest Cup after years of Daily Mail sponsorship, the national competition is still regarded as the pinnacle of the schoolboy game.
Durham defeated North East rivals Royal Grammar School Newcastle in the last round with a 22-5 away victory, director of sport Ben Mason satisfied with their progress in yet another productive campaign for one of the region’s serial sporting achievers.
“We have had a good season, and the only games we have lost have been to Sedbergh and Woodhouse Grove,” said Mason.
“Outside of that we have had a fantastic time, and including our tour to Canada we have played 22 games with just two defeats off the back of going unbeaten through our regular season last year.”
Negotiating the notoriously cyclical nature of schools rugby, he added: “A lot of people talk about the peaks and troughs of in terms of losing guys every season when their year group moves on.
“But I am a firm believer you can pre-empt where you are going to be weak, and target the year below for some extra work.
“We are really happy with the side we have got at the moment, and they are different to last year’s group in terms of the way they play.
“They are equal in quality, and for the next few years we will be at a similar level with the boys we have coming in behind.
“Last year’s side had a little bit more grunt about them, whereas this current group probably play better as a team.
“They maybe don’t have the superstars of last season in terms of Craig Willis and David Nelson, who have earned contracts with Newcastle Falcons, but they gel a bit better and are very good to work with.
“We put everything we talk about in training onto the field when we play, and they have been a pleasure to coach so far.”
Surpassing RGS to set up Thursday’s Barnard Castle showdown (kick-off 11.15am), Mason said: “We just beat RGS 25-24 during the season in our regular home fixture, and they are a nuggety side who got into us physically. We responded well, and in the cup game we produced one of our best team performances.
“After RGS scored the first try we really took charge, and we controlled the game to win 22-5.
“As a coach you can’t ask for any more than that away from home in the cup, and we are now looking forward to the Barnard Castle game on Thursday.”
Both schools boast a long list of distinguished rugby alumni, Durham’s including Lions lock Geoff Parling and Barnard Castle boasting Scotland wing Tim Visser among the more recent crop to make the top.
Mason said: “We played Barnard Castle in the first game of the season and won 23-19 at home, but they are a good side and there is not much between the two schools.
“Their upper-sixth form at the moment are the same year group who went to the semi-finals of the old Daily Mail Cup at Under-15s level, and they have some very good players. The Coser twins, Jonny and Guy, play in the back-row, and they are excellent around the field. If you don’t get numbers to the ruck they will turn you over, and it is going to be a tight contest I would expect.
“Whoever turns up and wants it the most on the day will win, because there so little between the two sides.
“It is not overly clear-cut who is going to go through to the last 16, and it is great for both schools and the region to be involved in a big game like this, getting towards the business end of a national competition.”
Whatever happens on Thursday Durham already have one trophy in the cabinet this season, Mason saying: “We won the ‘Oldest Four’ tournament, which we set up, playing down at Sherborne School in Dorset at half-term.
“We beat Sherborne, Cheltenham College and St Paul’s, and that was a fairly good achievement against some decent sides.”
Explaining the concept, he added: “It is basically the four oldest rugby clubs in the world.
“Rugby football started at Rugby School in 1823, and went to Cheltenham College in 1843, Sherborne in 1847 and Durham School in 1850.
A lot of the medical students from Rugby School went to Guy’s Hospital where they also formed a team, so that makes Durham School the fifth-oldest rugby club of any kind in the world, and the fourth-oldest schoolboy side.
“We founded this ‘Oldest Four’ tournament in 2010 which Rugby School won, and the plan was to stage it every two years.
“There was a bit of a delay which meant it was played this year rather than last, and Rugby School pulled out basically because they didn’t invent the tournament, so they were replaced by St Paul’s from London.
“Sherborne hosted us down there in their boarding house, and it was a great tournament. We were chuffed to bits to have won it, and it has been a good year for us.”