Beginner’s ruck

Luke Evans finds out why going on a rugby trip with King Edward’s School, Birmingham, can build lifelong skills

“You’re free to take photographs, the gangs know what’s going on, but if we go into there and I tell you not to take photographs, please don’t,” the tour guide said to the boys. It was their penultimate day in Rio de Janeiro, and they’d arrived in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. As the group walked on, one of the boys hung back to take a photograph of a dangling electrical cable. “What he didn’t see at the end of this alley,” said Chris Johnson, “was a guy with a machine gun.”

As the director of sport at King Edward’s School, Johnson is responsible for leading school trips that are a far cry from the world of the West Midlands. “We do a rugby trip every two years with senior boys in years 11 and 12, an annual water polo trip, cricket tours and a hockey trip every two to three years,” he said. “The first trip I went on was to Dubai and Japan, then Argentina and Brazil [in 2011], then Malaysia and China [in 2013] … Next summer, 2015, we’re lined up to go to Toronto in Canada. The hockey team are going to South Africa. Cricket’s going to Barbados, and the water polo team are visiting Eger in Hungary.”

Far from being simple tourist holidays, however, the school sets out to become immersed in the local community, whether it’s lodging with families or finding out when you should take photos in the favelas. “One of the coaches, Jon Porter, had to use whatever pidgin Spanish he had to make it clear to this guy that the boy hadn’t been taking a photograph. When [the gang member] finally saw this, he was all fine – he was smiling.”

The trips aim to provide character-building experiences for senior boys on the cusp of adulthood: the incident in Rocinha came on the heels of a day spent coaching favela kids at a military base in São Paulo. “They’d not really seen rugby at all, so we’d taken rugby balls and training kits and cones and bibs and things. [Our team] spent the morning coaching these boys and girls, and at the end of the day, they gave them the kit to take away and use for themselves after.” Their time at the military base also saw them meet some of the country’s top sportsmen. “They’d brought all the teams from all over Brazil; they put them together in a squad. These Brazilian officials were there and they were saying that their goal is to make rugby the Brazilian second national sport.”

Johnson describes the trips as “very, very busy”. Their journey to South America also saw them visit Buenos Aires and the glistening borderland of Iguazu Falls, while the trek across South East Asia last year took them from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia by way of Hangzhou and Shanghai to the Chinese capital of Beijing, where they visited an orphanage. “It was on a vast scale in this huge compound, with floor after floor of rooms with small children and spaces stuffed with girls … I can tell you, a staff member and I were at the back trying to make sure that the boys didn’t see us crying.”

Although there have been moments of deep culture shock, there have also been unexpected high points. When they arrived at the hotel in Brazil, the team discovered that two international sporting competitions were taking place practically on their doorstep. “We were only a couple of minutes from Copacabana beach, so we dropped our bags and things off at the hotel and walked over, and the World Military Games were on,” said Johnson. “I’d never heard of this, but all these armed forces from all across the world were there. There was a triathlon, a big dome put up and games everywhere. So we put up our stuff and started playing beach rugby, and we attracted a crowd of a hundred or so. And if you walk along Copacabana, at the end you turn off onto Ipanema beach, and as we walked over there we saw the World Surf Tour.”

King Edward’s is well-known for excelling when it comes to sports and physical education, with past highlights including two English schools under-19 water polo wins along with a long-running rugby rivalry against Bromsgrove School. “Sport’s such a huge part of our school, so our boys and the staff spend a lot of time and energy on it,” said Johnson. The director of sport has played nationally as hooker for Leicester Tigers, while PE teacher Emily Scarratt plays fullback for England and will be going to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“That’s the beauty of rugby, you’ve got that commonality of purpose,” said Johnson. “When you’re in a country where you haven’t got a word of their language, it opens up places where you can go and see these fantastic little things together.”

Having the chance to travel to distant places and experience different cultures is something that he doesn’t take for granted, either. “These are opportunities that the staff and boys will never get to see again. When the boys — when the men come back — they won’t remember that physics lesson, but they’ll remember this.”


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