London state school pupils revive Rugby Fives and prepare to take on ‘the poshies’

“There’s only one other state school in the country, up in Derby, that plays Fives,” says Alex Gilbert, the PE teacher supervising the session. “Not sure why so few do. It’s great. We’ve found it works for everyone, the kids who are well into their PE and those who are a bit more reluctant.”

He should know. This is a school that takes its sport seriously. Tao Geoghegan Hart, the 2020 Giro d’Italia winner, was a pupil here, as were Lawrence Okolie, the cruiserweight boxing champion and Sean Clare, the Charlton Athletic midfielder. And from September, they intend to get competitive at Fives, engaging in fixtures against some of the public schools long associated with the game. 

“We can’t wait to see how the poshies play it,” says Ameddzhan. “See if they do it different.”

And what makes the story of Stoke Newington’s Fives all the more extraordinary is that Tevez, Jack and Ameddzhan are only playing because of a chance conversation in the staff room. Back in 1970, when this was Clissold School, the headmaster was a Rugby alumnus and had half a dozen open air courts built in the playground. But when he left, the game stopped being played. By the time Clissold amalgamated with Woodbury Down School to form a giant inner-city comprehensive, they had fallen into disrepair. Then in the mid-1990s Howard Wiseman, a Rugby Fives coach, heard about them and persuaded the then head that this might be a game to enthuse the pupils. He was right. By 2002 he had more than 100 of them playing regularly, had helped them become the first state school ever to win the national championship and had produced the country’s No1 seeded girl player. Then, keen to make it a year round sport, he got a grant from the National Fives Association and put a roof over the courts.

“That was our downfall,” he explains, 20 years on. “The school was having major construction work at the time and the moment the roof went on the courts were requisitioned to be used as storage for building materials. They were never actually played on. And the whole momentum of the programme was lost.”