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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 04:27 GMT 05:27 UK
Campion the wonder school
Campion School rugby team
Campion's stars can look forward to a day 'up west'
By BBC Sport Online's Benjamin Dirs

Durham and Campion will contest the Daily Mail Schools Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday, a fixture that embodies all the romance of the cup.

It will be north versus south, old against new, a clash of perennial bridesmaids, and, most likely to get the emotions going, public school versus comprehensive. It could well be a classic.

Since its foundation in 1962, Campion has blazed a heady trail for state school rugby in England, a tradition all the more remarkable considering its locale: Romford, Essex.

Being the first comprehensive to make the final makes me very proud
  Campion's headmaster John Johnson
Jason Leonard aside, you don't normally associate Essex with excellence in rugby. As for Romford, surely it's all West Ham and snooker?

Campion's headmaster John Johnson provides some background: "The school was founded by Jesuits who always had a strong link with rugby.

"We have had a string of great coaches and non-specialist staff have always played a part. Being the first comprehensive to make the final makes me very proud."

Campion reached the final with a thrilling 17-16 win over RGS Newcastle after being 13-0 down at half time. The victory ended years of heartbreak, having fallen at the semi-final stage three times previously.

Coach Chris Jones attributes his side's success to 15-man rugby, a Campion ethos that helped produce Scottish international Damian Cronin, Saracens' Tony Diprose and Kevin Sorrell and Harlequins flyer Daren O'Leary.

Tony Diprose
Tony Diprose - a product of the Campion academy
"The backs started the season better, but since Christmas the forwards have stepped up and both have gelled. In the semi, the longer the game went on the better we looked," says Jones.

"Being an old boy it will be a particularly proud day. A lot of old boys would love to do my job."

Durham School claim to be the fourth oldest rugby outfit in the world, and have been touring for 150 years. Alumni include England lock Gareth Archer and British Lions great Mike Weston.

Like Campion, Durham have suffered more than their fair share of semi-final anguish: three semis in the last four years before victory over Pangbourne College on more tries scored saw them through.

"It was an unbelievable relief and a tremendous achievement", says coach Paul Gerrard. "The competition provides great focus and is a great arena for players to develop their skills."

Durham's most influential player is England school's no.8 Jason Smithson, but Gerrard insists he is just part of a "workman-like team with few stars".

Fly-half Michael Whitehead is Campion's linchpin. Whitehead is being courted by a gaggle of top clubs and will want to impress on Saturday.

Ron Tennick of the England Rugby Football Schools Union says the tournament is key in producing rugby stars of the future.

"It throws good players up to the surface and is a shop window for schools," says Tennick.

Twenty years ago rugby was seen as an upper-class sport and the England team reflected that - but things have improved and it's nice to see
  Ron Tennick
Rugby Football Union
"This year has been a particularly exciting tournament with some very close games and the final won't be any different."

Tennick feels Campion's success is symptomatic of the changing face of rugby in England.

"Twenty years ago rugby was seen as an upper-class sport and the England team reflected that. But things have improved and it's nice to see," says Tennick.

Headquarters is known to make grizzled internationals weak at the knees, so how are two teams of schoolboys expected to cope with the experience?

"It's all about control," says Gerrard. "Both are good teams and the side that control their emotions better on the day will win."

Chris Jones agrees: "I'll tell the players to chill out. If they wind themselves up they'll see red and make mistakes."

Campion have sold two thousand tickets for the game and Durham expect well over a thousand to make the pilgrimage from the north east.

It has the makings of a magnificent encounter, and whatever the outcome, the boys who play in it will be dining out on the experience for the rest of their lives.

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