History for JESS as they become first international school to reach a final at Rosslyn Park 7s

Matt Jones - Editor 09:10 25/04/2019
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The triumphant JESS squad prior to their departure at Dubai Airport.

A group of rugby-loving teenagers from Dubai made history by becoming the first international school to reach a final at the prestigious Rosslyn Park National Schools 7s last month.

Jumeirah English Speaking School’s Under-14 boys side achieved what is believed to be a first for the world-renowned tournament – which has been held since 1939.

That year, 16 schools competed. It has since evolved into the world’s largest rugby tournament with over 9,000 boys and girls aged 13-19 from over 800 schools descending annually on the London-based club.

It was a fairytale run for the band of expatriate players and, even though it was not to have the happiest of endings – they were defeated 35-14 in the final by Harrow School – coach Mike Wernham hailed the youngsters for putting “UAE rugby on the map”.

“I remember as a boy, playing at Rosslyn Park 7s for three consecutive years and thought I had an idea of how big the competition was, and the best that the teams did that I was part of was to make the semi-finals,” said the Englishman, who attended renowned rugby school Sedbergh – three-time winners of the main NS7 Open title at Rosslyn Park.

“This U14 JESS team in their very first attempt beat some incredibly strong schools and became the first ever international school to make a final at the competition which is a remarkable effort.

“It still is incredibly difficult to describe how proud I am of their efforts and I know for the players themselves the result has still not sunk in.

“There are some misinformed opinions about rugby in this part of the world when it comes to standard of play and I think these young men have certainly put UAE rugby on the map in the biggest schoolboy rugby competition in the world.”

That’s not an overstatement. Originally a tournament played among English public schools, the tournament has evolved and expanded over the years and now accepts not only sides from the rest of the UK, but also from all over the world, including Canada, China, India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, as well as various European countries.

JESS eased thorough as winners of Group D with wins over England’s Hampton School (24-19) and Scottish side Dollar Academy (31-10), drawing 24-24 with Welsh side Brynteg.

In the first elimination round they disposed of Malvern College 26-15 but then lost their second group stage opener 29-14 to Whitgift School. They qualified for the knockout stages by hammering Epsom College 50-0 and from there the dream continued. York’s St Peter’s School were narrowly beaten 28-24 in the quarter-final before Rodillian Academy were put to the sword 31-7 in the semis to set up a grand finale with Harrow.

It wasn’t to be in the end, but it is an epic feat for this squad of 12 players, led by skipper Tom Burton.

“It has been an incredible achievement not just for the team but for the school,” added Wernham.

“We have invested an awful lot of time, money and resources into Sport at JESS, particularly in the last three years and this is certainly one of our star stories that will be spoken about for a long time to come.

“I remember saying during my interview six years ago that my long-term goal would be to have competitive teams looking to go on big sports tours and if we were at the level then perhaps look at entering Rosslyn Park 7s. It was absolutely not in my head to almost win the thing.

“The powers that be supported the idea fully and the group of players involved latched onto it and worked their socks off.

“There have been some sacrifices along the way, this has been a two-year process, but for all parties involved the effort and sacrifices were certainly worth it when you look at the final results.”

Wernham admitted that a special task required special training – with the coaches reverting to some rather odd techniques in order to prepare the boys for what were expected to be very different playing conditions to what they’re used to in sunny Dubai.

Wernham went on: “The boys were a very close knit group already, however, having some specific time together beforehand just brought the team together even more with some of the challenges we set them.

“We trained at Ski Dubai, completely soaked the school field, covered the balls in washing up liquid and had the boys playing 7s at 10s competitions hoping to turn over every stone possible in terms of being prepared for this competition.

“As luck would have it we had nothing but blue skies, dry pitches and fairly warm weather so the team felt like they were right at home.

“Having said that, beating schools such as Hampton, St Peters York and Epsom College just to name a few is a ridiculous feat.

“They did JESS and UAE rugby a huge service and it’s something we all as part of expat rugby can be incredibly proud of.

“This is just the start for JESS with this tournament, we will now be going to Rosslyn Park every year at this age group and for this team specifically they will be back again in two years’ time hoping to go one better as U16s.”

JESS squad: Tom Burton (capt), Labeeb Iqbal, Dexter Wigand, Tom Battiston, Kai Inker, Jordan Bell, John Barnes, Rob Everett, Scott Edmonds, Ben Youlden-Cole, Seb Williams-Parry, Walid Nsouli

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