My game day Saturday morning started early at Allianz Park, I arrived at 10:30 to meet up with staunch Saracens fans Debs and James Lee and their 15 year old son, Ben. My aim was to try to understand some of what it takes to get noticed as a young rugby player, what puts an individual in front of the people looking for talent?

In common with the professional players I’ve spoken to we started at the beginning and that meant understanding James first and foremost. James did indeed play the game at semi-pro level, but athletics and in particular Triple Jump was where he excelled. In fact he was 3rd in the country at one time and in a scheme that saw him leave school in Norfolk at lunchtime to travel to Crystal Palace to train, returning to school the next afternoon. On the rugby front James, playing at Number 8, broke 2 vertebrae and dislocated his hip. He therefore, had no intention of pushing Ben towards the game.

So, how did it happen? Debs was pregnant with Ben during the 2003 World Cup and an England rugby kit was bought before Ben was born, boy or girl, it was being worn. Coincidentally Ben was born in the same hospital as both Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood!

Sorry Ben, the baby photo had to be included

Ben was an only child, and by 7 Debs felt he needed to be interacting with other children outside school. He had a class mate whose Dad was a coach at Lincoln Rugby Club and so he was taken along. During that first session he stood watching the lorries go by.

However in his first U7’s game , against Nottingham at Lady Bay, he took off down the wing to score, with the tags on his shorts flying. After the games he grabbed a training cone and used it as a kicking tee a la one of his heroes Jonny Wilkinson.

Ben on the run in an U7’s match

Jonny was usurped in the hero stakes in 2012 when the family watched England beat the All Blacks, Owen Farrell scored 14 of the 38 points scored by his team and a new hero was born.

Things didn’t work out for Ben at Lincoln, his enthusiasm was starting to ebb away, having had a son playing at a local club I can understand the need to move. After a couple of trial sessions the decision was made to move to Newark, that was at the U10’s stage, so it was clear rugby was going to be important in Ben’s life. Another coincidence here, Newark is Dusty Hare’s old club.

Secondary School was approaching for Ben and the family moved to give him the best chance of gaining a place at King’s School in Grantham, a school with a very famous ex pupil, Sir Isaac Newton! Lincolnshire has the highest number of state grammar schools, realistically rugby is more likely to be played at those schools, but the choice of school was an educational decision.

That will have been a tough time for Ben as all of his friends went to different schools, but a rugby camp at the school in the summer holidays before he started will have been a great help. That first term saw Ben playing at fly half for both school and club and moving up to full contact and 15 players a-side. As Debs put it, an extra player gets added every year.

Kicking from hand is a real skill for Ben

It was clear that Ben had a talent for kicking the ball and it’s something he’s always enjoyed. And here’s where the Saracens connection comes in, James met Mick Flinn (of New Seekers fame), through his work and rugby came up. MIck’s Godson Ed Clark is Head of Community Partnerships at Saracens and an invite to attend a training camp at Allianz Park was forthcoming.

There’s something addictive about Saracens, as a fan I know that well, and one camp turned into multiple camps whenever possible, with hotels being booked for the longer courses. This really was the point that Ben decided he wanted to be like his role model, Owen Farrell.

Ben was spotted by a Leicester Tigers coach in 2018, he’d come back having been out with a broken arm for 3 months, the coach had come to watch another boy play but saw Ben’s kicking ability and wanted him in his club. After some email contact which came to nothing, Newark coach Danny Coen eventually initiated contact with Tigers, but Ben decided the Tigers DPP wasn’t for him after just 3 sessions.

The face of determination

At Newark the age group above needed 8 players and coach Danny Coen called 8 from the age group below for a game. He chose, Siege Gun, as Ben is known, to play at full-back for his team on a permanent basis. He became an integral part of the team, taking the kicking duties. Emulating one Dusty Hare a Ben penalty in the final minute of the NLD Cup Semi-Final saw the team win a place in the final.

This was the last chance for this team to get their hands on this cup, and with Derby, their opponents 10 nil up in the final a huge tackle from Ben saw his team stay in touch and go on to win.

Ben and a proud Dad with the Cup

A celebration tour to Ireland followed. And Ireland is where Ben’s rugby story stalls. Ben suffered a ruptured ACL, in the last match of the tour, he felt such intense pain it saw him go deaf in one ear. He received outstanding treatment in Cork hospital with the chance to go back to join his friends at their last tour meal, the whole restaurant erupted as he arrived!

Ben’s now in the recovery phase and having a year out from the game, that may well be a blessing as the injury’s coincided with Year 11 and exams. He plans to stay on at school and study Psychology, French and History.

In the words of James – Putting someone in the right environment is the way to get the best from them. Ben is raring to get back to it, which will mean school studies alongside an evening training session for both school and club with added one to one gym sessions, before school games on Saturday and club games on Sunday. To succeed in this game takes a lot of dedication.

I hope to get to see Ben play once he’s back in full flow and will watch his progression with interest.

Who should Ben bump into on Sunday!

To finish on a funny note, I sent this to Debs to check and I’d had a complete brain freeze with the date of the World Cup – I’d made Ben 24! We both agreed he’s bigger than many 24 year olds, and on that basis it seems James has decided it’s time to call time on play fighting now! I can’t say I blame him, wise man!

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