By Poppy Dooley
Rugby coach Alan Gray is celebrating 20 years of teaching the game he loves to thousands of youngsters in Keswick, from raw have-a-go novices to those who went on to become senior international players.
Alan, 65, was first appointed coach by Keswick Rugby Club in 2000 with a remit to work with Keswick School, which has employed him in a similar role in recent years – but some uncertainty now hangs over his final 12 months because of coronavirus.
His plan was to retire in 2021 when he officially becomes a pensioner but Keswick School’s plans and budgets for next year have inevitably been jolted by the lockdown upheaval, while local junior schools, where Alan also coached, are in limbo too.
“I want to do another year but it is possible I’ve held my last school coaching session. Keswick School has to have the resources to support me being there,” said Alan, who is writing a coaching manual. “But I will carry on coaching at Penrith Rugby Club and I am available to give anyone a hand. I certainly don’t feel 65. My knees do though!” added the veteran ex-Keswick player, who also coached the club’s first team.
Whatever the future holds, Alan can look back with immense pride on his two decades coaching local children how to play rugby to the best of their ability. A former pupil of Lairthwaite School in Keswick – ironically they played football not rugby there – he calculates that approximately 2,200 young players have passed through his rugby coaching system during that period.
“It is always very pleasing when some of your players turn out to be absolute crackers,” said Alan, who faced the unique challenge at Keswick of blending local talent with that arriving from west Cumbria. “You could end up with a really great team, which we did year after year. Then you have to keep on replenishing the stock of players, getting as much participation as possible. With people who are average learning to play properly, you can produce teams that are greater than the sum of their parts,” added Alan, who thanked Tim Bunting and Kate Stanton, past and present head of PE at Keswick School respectively for their support.
No fewer than five of Cumbria’s senior men’s team which lifted county silverware at Twickenham last year had been coached as Keswick youngsters by Alan, who with partner Gillian has two sons, Ted and Stuart. Other players who represented their county at school or senior level are too numerous to mention but perhaps Alan’s greatest legacy will be the lead role he played in pioneering girls’ rugby in his home town, which resulted in the development of three current internationals, with more in the pipeline.
Abbie Scott, Cath O’Donnell (both England) and Evie Tonkin (Scotland) all came under Alan’s tutelage at Keswick School or the local rugby club – or both. When pressed for the best team he produced, it is the girls who triumphed in a prestigious 10-a-side tournament at Caldy on Merseyside who puff his chest out a little further. “Rugby is a great game for girls,” said Alan, in typical no-nonsense style.
It is a measure of the respect that he is given that Abbie, who played in that Caldy victory and now plays as a professional for England and Harlequins, invited Alan to her send-off with family and friends at the Swinside Inn at Newlands before taking part in the Rugby World Cup in 2017.
So, is Abbie, who has captained her country, Alan’s greatest coaching success? Well next week we will run a special article featuring Alan’s own all-time best XV that he coached during the last 20 years. It’s a must-see for anyone with links to Keswick School or Keswick Rugby Club.