Eastbourne College were keen to help me in my request to talk to their former pupil, Piers O’Conor, 24. After a quick check with Bristol Bears, the rugby union club O’Conor currently plays for, it was set.
Busy preparing for the new Premiership season, O’Conor told me about his career so far and I found that his high level of ambition is coupled with a strong desire to stay connected to his former school – where he developed as a rugby player. He’s also entirely aware that you have to work hard to get what you want.
O’Conor found his passion for rugby even before Eastbourne College. He started playing at seven years old when his dad took him to Lewes Rugby Football Club. While he doesn’t remember exactly what he enjoyed about it initially, he knows the nature of competitive sports is essential for him.
“I’ve always enjoyed all sports and I’m quite a competitive person,” says O’Conor, continuing: “I don’t remember exactly what I most enjoyed about playing rugby at first, but I’d probably say the competitive nature was a big part of it, in whatever sport I was playing. I just wanted to play and compete against other people.”
O’Conor attended Cumnor House Sussex, a co-educational preparatory school, followed by Eastbourne College, a co-educational boarding and day school on the south coast of England. The school celebrated its 150th anniversary last year and this year celebrates 50 years of educating girls.
Rugby was O’Conor’s number one sport at Eastbourne College, but he also enjoyed hockey and cricket. He says: “I first played hockey in year 9 and picked it up really quick, playing at quite a high level for the school, but when I had to make a decision about what I wanted to focus on, I knew I wanted to play rugby more so had to give up hockey.” He also focused on athletics, as he knew it would benefit his rugby playing.
The teaching staff at Eastbourne were, as O’Conor describes, “really supportive”.
He elaborates: “They just wanted to better everyone there. There was always an opportunity for me to play sport and they helped cater for extra activities like going to the gym too.
“Because I wanted to play more rugby, in year 11 they allowed me on weekends to go and play club rugby to get some more practice in, even though I was a boarder. They were very accommodating with that, which I was always thankful for because I possibly wouldn’t have been where I am today if I wasn’t playing as much as I was.”
Getting used to the level and the things required, going from a school system into a professional one, took time; you have to adapt
While the facilities at the school were “more than adequate” during his time there, O’Conor says they’re “a hundred times better now” after the school’s £33m Project 150 development – a huge refurbishment and expansion of existing academic facilities, and a 20-year ‘future-proof’ enhancement to its sports facilities.
O’Conor says: “Project 150 was in its initial stages when I was there and I remember seeing the plans at the time but I haven’t seen what they’ve created yet. I want to go back soon to see them.”
He adds about Eastbourne College: “I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I felt like I had a real opportunity and everything I needed. I’m thankful for the opportunities that they gave me, from coaching to education.”
I ask him what advice he’d give to young people at schools and, ultimately, what strategy teachers should take with their most promising sports pupils.
He says: “Try and play as many sports as you can. All sports have similarities and the more you can work on things like your hand-eye coordination and fitness, the more it will help. Play everything you can to the best of your ability.”
“This is my second year at the club and currently we’re coming to the end of our pre-season,” O’Conor says about what he’s up to currently (I spoke to him at the start of September). He says the team took a lot of positives from where they finished last year and have built on the relationships they’ve made.
I wonder whether O’Conor’s school life prepared him for his early, public successes. “Getting used to the level and the things required, going from a school system into a professional one, took time; you have to adapt. You have to find the level, step up and work hard.”
But his highlight was at the end of the last season, representing England against Barbarians. England’s head coach, Jim Mallinder, announced his 23-strong squad on Bank Holiday Monday just a week before the Quilter Cup match in June. O’Conor joined Ben Loader (London Irish) and his Bristol Bears teammate Callum Sheedy in the midfield line-up. Another Eastbourne College former pupil, Alice Turnbull, played at Twickenham on the same day.
He says of the special moment: “It was a very proud moment for me and my family. It was amazing to run out at Twickenham with the shirt on. It wasn’t a full cap, but it still shows I’m in conversations with the selectors. I now want to get that full cap.”
Looking to the future, O’Conor says: “I want to represent England; I think that’s what every kid wants to achieve as a rugby player. The only way I can achieve that is by playing for Bristol and putting my best foot forward, doing what I can for the team. If I’m playing well and the team’s playing well, the more people will start looking. I’ve got to keep pushing myself and be the best player I can.”
In the more immediate future, O’Conor has spoken to Mike Harrison, director of sport at Eastbourne College, about setting up a session to come in and talk to current rugby players.
O’Conor’s story reminds me that schools should always strive to help young people achieve their goals, and if done so, the connection between student and school can remain long after they’ve gone on to pursue other things.
With his sights set on England, O’Conor is undoubtedly one to watch in professional rugby, and Eastbourne College another example of an independent school helping young people go confidently towards their dreams.