Phil Clarke remembers his first trip to Wembley and hopes this weekend inspires youngsters as much as it did him
Phil Clarke says that the Challenge Cup curtain raiser shows just how far league has developed.
Last Updated: 22/08/13 8:42am
I remember in the build-up to the match how the cameras travelled down to Wembley on the train with the Wakefield team. They interviewed a legendary player called Bill Ashurst and a dazzling stand-off named David Topliss who talked up their hopes of victory over Widnes, I was hooked on it before the game had kicked off.
I never imagined then that I'd be lucky enough to play at Wembley and experience the atmosphere and occasion that even players in Australia have on their bucket list.
I was fortunate to be in a Wigan team that won there on several occasions, but they're not the memories that I want to recall today. It's the game before the Final that I always look out for.
Back in 1982 it was the turn of the Wigan School's Under 11's team to play before the main final and I was lucky enough to be selected in the side. We took on the Morley team (close to Wakefield/Leeds) and I must say that it was as good, if not better, than the real Cup Finals that I played in during the 90's. The concept first began in 1975 when the game wanted to encourage rugby league in schools. A curtain raiser was the carrot to increase participation.
Our coaches, Mr Mullaney and Mr Mallin, were local school teachers, just like they will be this year. The event is now part of a wider competition, the Champion Schools Tournament, and has Finals for Boys and Girls from year 7 to year 10. Most of them take place the day before, this year in Richmond. But the Boys Years 7 Final has been given the honour of playing on the big pitch at Wembley before Wigan play Hull FC.
It can sometimes be easy to forget just what progress rugby league has made in my lifetime. We have financial problems which dominate the headlines in Super League and often miss the growth that takes place at the bottom of the pyramid.
The participation numbers in the Champion Schools Tournament have risen from just over 5000 in 2002 to just short of 30,000 last year.
But a growth in number isn't what impresses me the most. It's where the schools who qualify for the finals come from that shows how the game has changed since 1982.
This year's match at Wembley will see Castleford Academy take on RGS from High Wycombe. Yes, High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Before you tell me that they have no chance against boys from a school with such a rugby league tradition, let me tell you about the 2012 match. Castleford Academy lost in the final to Howard of Effingham from Surrey!
The time has come for us to accept that there are people who can play this game in areas that don't currently have professional teams.
I re-watched the video of the Wigan school boys trip to Wembley in 1982 this week and a few things struck me.
Firstly, how much the effort the teachers had put into the planning and preparation. A few years ago I was the Great Britain team manager, responsible for the team's preparation for a Test series. I have to admit that the organisation and attention to detail back in 1982 was as good as anything I saw with Great Britain. We sometimes forget when we get wrapped up in the professional game just how much effort the teachers and coaches of junior teams put in.
It was also interesting to hear that although the schools in Morley were less than 10 miles from either Leeds or Wakefield, rugby league had only just started in the region.
The final thing that made me smile was seeing Andy Gregory walk onto the pitch as I walked off it. He was appearing in the main final. Nine years later I walked back out onto Wembley in the same team as him!
Good luck to both the Year 7 teams on Saturday, I hope that they both have the time of their lives. I wonder which one of them will be back to play at Wembley again?