Retired Sunderland sports teacher celebrates rugby history in new book

The St Aidan's Under 13 team in 1958/9.
The St Aidan's Under 13 team in 1958/9.
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A retired Wearside sports teacher is hoping to hook readers with his new book on school rugby – and raise cash for a good cause as well.

St Aidan’s Catholic Academy: Rugby Memories, by Mick Winter, pays tribute to the “doctrine of the oval ball” through the memories of former pupils and teachers.

A St Aidan's Under 15s rugby team in 1958-59.

A St Aidan's Under 15s rugby team in 1958-59.

Dozens of archive photos, from the 1930s onwards, illustrate the stories, and the book also contains historical facts, figures and information about the school.

“It goes into detail about the start of rugby under the leadership of Reverend Brother Burns,” said Mick, a former pupil and teacher at St Aidan’s.

“Past pupils such as Iain Rutherford and Tony Downie, who both enjoyed playing rugby when it began, have contributed their vivid memories of rugby’s early days.

“Brother Eamonn O’Brien, affectionately known as Brother Bob, has also contributed a personal account – giving great insight into St Aidan’s rugby community.”

“The inspiration to write this book emanated from the pleasure I had playing sport as a pupil and teacher at St Aidan’s. I was part of a community that used sport to develop the student into a well-rounded adult, able to take their place in the world.

Soccer, rather than rugby, was traditionally the preferred sport of the Jesuits and Christian Brothers who ran St Aidan’s – then Corby Hall – in the early years.

But the arrival of keen rugby player Brother Albert Burns in 1954 paved the way for major changes – and set St Aidan’s on course for sporting glory.

“Albert was the inspiration behind the introduction of rugby, along with Brothers Powell and Doherty. They helped convert the school to the doctrine of the oval ball,” said Mick.

“Rugby was Albert’s passion, and he proved an inspirational coach. He took infinite pains in training teams, and often recalled his first inter-school fixture against Bede.

The St Aidan's Under 14s rugby team in 1957-58.

The St Aidan's Under 14s rugby team in 1957-58.

“A long year of planning and coaching was completed before the games took place. Bede had long been cock of the walk in rugby circles, but St Aidan’s won all four of their matches.”

One of the first to join the rugby team was Iain Rutherford, who still vividly recalls getting “flattened in the mud” by much bigger lads as he started to learn the new game.

“I played prop alongside Jeff Little (a Westoe first team regular) and Michael McDonald. A distinguishing feature of our front row was that we were all red-headed,” he said.

“By the winter of 1956-57 we had the makings of a XV, but no pitch. By the time I left in 1959 there was a pitch – but, of course, on land that the footballers didn’t want!”

The first Under 13s St Aidan's rugby team in the 1950s.

The first Under 13s St Aidan's rugby team in the 1950s.

Mick was also part of the squad in the late 1950s – although he had arrived at St Aidan’s desperate to play football, rather than rugby.

“I soon realised the lads being taught by Brother Burns seemed to be having great fun getting covered in mud and engaging in the physical aspects like tackling,” he said.

“Immediately, I was a convert and relished every moment spent playing rugby. I vividly remember travelling to Scotland and playing on the training pitches at Murrayfield.

“We lost to a rugged, physical set of Scots lads, but travelled back to Sunderland wearied but undaunted – and more determined than ever to improve our performance levels.”

The arrival of the Swinging Sixties found St Aidan’s still focussed on football. Indeed, the rugby operation was run on a shoe-string, with tattered shirts and shorts of varied colours.

A limited fixture list featured 12-15 games a season, mainly against schools from across Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Shields, and 20 or 30-point losses were the norm.

Rugby players at The Limes playing field in the 1970s.

Rugby players at The Limes playing field in the 1970s.

But, by the middle of the decade, the tide had changed. The arrival of teacher Sean Burton, who played for Durham City, saw a new first XV take shape – and find success.

“Our great rivals were Bede Grammar, whom we had never beaten at first XV level. However, we managed to do so twice in successive seasons,” recalls former player, and later a St Aidan’s teacher, Paddy McConville.

“I particularly remember the second occasion, where we were watched by a crowd of about 100, whose support was orchestrated by the mysterious appearance of the old school bell – which our forward Michael French had pinched from the Headmaster’s office!”

The 1970s saw St Aidan’s switch to comprehensive school status and, thanks to the efforts of Brother Bob, it also underwent a radical and dramatic transformation into a rugby school.

“He was a brilliant coach, especially of backs, and stamped his style of play – flowing, creative and attractive – on the whole school,” recalls Paddy, who combined his job as a language teacher with coaching rugby.

“Thanks to his superhuman efforts the school enjoyed a decade of unparalleled success, with wins over such schools as Barnard Castle, St Peter’s at York and King’s at Tynemouth.

“As I think back over these successful years, there comes to mind countless boys who represented St Aidan’s with distinction, commitment, sportsmanship and no little skill.”

Indeed, during this era St Aidan’s chalked up three triumphs in the Tyneside Senior Cup – the last two under the direction of Brother Bob’s replacement Jim Marjoribanks.

More recent successes include clinching the Lord Taverner’s Trophy in 1992-3, winning the County Schools Plate in 2003-4 and two wins in the Sunderland Schools contest in 2009.And dozens of pupils have gone on to play at county level and beyond too, including D. Dolan (West Hartlepool), M. Guthrie (Anglo-Scots U21) and A. Doherty (full Ireland cap).

“The inspiration to write this book emanated from the pleasure I had playing sport as a pupil and as a teacher at St Aidan’s,” said Mick, who retired in 2010.

“I was part of a community that used sport to develop the student into a well-rounded adult, able to take their place in the world and play an active part.”

l Mick’s book will be launched at a St Aidan’s Old Boys Reunion on September 19, to be held at The Chester’s pub from 7.30pm. Admission, which includes a pie and pea supper, costs £5. All proceeds from the evening and book sales will be donated to Ovarian Cancer Research in memory of Mick’s late wife, Christine.

A St Aidan's rugby team in 1959-60.

A St Aidan's rugby team in 1959-60.

A St Aidan's rugby team in 1995.

A St Aidan's rugby team in 1995.

The St Aidan's First XV rugby team in 1985-86.

The St Aidan's First XV rugby team in 1985-86.

Mick Winter with his new book on school rugby outside St Aidan's. The book will be launched at a St Aidan's Old Boys Reunion on September 19, to be held at The Chester's pub from 7.30pm.

Mick Winter with his new book on school rugby outside St Aidan's. The book will be launched at a St Aidan's Old Boys Reunion on September 19, to be held at The Chester's pub from 7.30pm.

A St Aidan's rugby squad in the 1990s.

A St Aidan's rugby squad in the 1990s.

The First XV at St Aidan's in 1986-87.

The First XV at St Aidan's in 1986-87.