BALL in hand, standing between the uprights, Lee Dickson surveys the back fields which inspired him as a schoolboy. Following a successful career of proving his doubters wrong at the elite level, the former England scrum half is back at his old Barnard Castle School where he is now the new master in charge of rugby with big ambitions for elite sport.

Battling the elements and the opposition on Barney’s back fields as a member of the first XV launched him on a “crazy, enjoyable and tough” 15-year career in the sport. And while national school rugby remains as challenging as-ever, Barney has stayed competitive and has a solid foundation, which will stand the school in good stead, according to Lee.

The former England international and one-time Premiership Rugby winner now plans to develop the programme further by creating greater access to the sport for those from a young age.

“As soon as this opportunity came about, it was a no-brainer,” he says. “This place is in my heart; I had the best time of my life here. It is going to be an exciting season and a great building block. We recently had five members of the senior team turnout for the Newcastle Falcons U18s and have a couple of exciting prospects coming into the side.

“But, for me, it is about developing the younger generation of the school. I want my message to filter right through to the Prep School, so that the basics of rugby are instilled into the kids and they have fun with the sport.”

Lee is already settling well into life in the North, after retiring from the game at the start of 2019, when he last played for Bedford Blues.

Having been schooled at Barney from the ages of 11 to 18, Lee has a strong affinity with the region – he called Newcastle home for four seasons when he played for the Falcons before moving to Northampton in 2008, where he was part of Saints’ championship winning side in 2014.

He’d always dreamed of returning to where it all started, but a homecoming was something he didn’t think would ever happen. He’d also wanted the opportunity for his three children – Josh, Oscar and Charlie – to go to school at Barnard Castle.

“I didn’t think it would happen, though, as we were happily settled down south,” he says. “Then the call came out of the blue and my wife, Becky, was completely understanding and open to the idea as she knew it was my dream.”

His new role will be much more than teaching the fundamentals of rugby to youngsters and honing their raw talent. He is equally keen to enhance players’ soft skills beyond the pitch.

“My ambition is to create ‘C’ team rugby out of the school,” he explains. “It is great that we have strong A and B sides, but rugby brings a lot out of people and I feel that every child should want to play it and for it not to be forced. Gone are the days when people are shouting and screaming at each other; it has to be fun. I want them to go out there, be a free spirit and enjoy their rugby.

“It isn’t just our students’ playing ability and physical nature, it’s their attitude towards rugby. They all have a great deal of respect and are well mannered, which is very important to the school and the sport as a whole.

“Even if they are not going to be a world-class rugby player, what rugby instils in people is friendship and a bond that allows you to express yourself. It is like a brotherhood.

“I will have done my job when, after students are sent on their way after Sixth Form, they still love playing the game of rugby.”

Barney had a massive impact on Lee’s career, particularly one of its teachers, who is now his colleague, Martin Pepper, another former professional rugby player and Barney’s current Second Master.

“Martin is Barnard Castle School. He also came from a professional sporting environment and has really revolutionised the rugby programme at Barney,” Lee says.

“He was always there to talk to you and someone who offered advice and tough love, but also put his arm around you when you needed it. When people think of rugby players, they think ‘tough guys’, but we are humans and the way Martin goes about his business to this day and his approach to rugby has rubbed off on me.

“When I left Barney, I spoke to Martin every few weeks and it is important to have that bond with players and students. The teaching and support staff all have that here, because they care. It is not just a job for them.”

SINCE 2004, rugby has been Lee’s job, but had he listened to one coach, who told him he wasn’t good enough to play the game at the highest level, that wouldn’t have happened.

“I had to really work hard and prove a lot of people wrong,” he recalls. “I was told when I was 18 that I wasn’t good enough to play, which gave me the motivation to go on.

“A former coach of mine, John Fletcher, along with Martin, instilled belief in me to just go and have a crack at it.

“Rugby gave me everything. If you would have said to me when I left Barney at 18 that I’d achieve everything that I have done throughout my career, I’d have bitten your hand off! There’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all along the way.”

Representing England was always a special moment for Lee and one of his proudest memories was making his international debut against Scotland in 2012.

“Playing for England is the pinnacle of everything and making my debut for the national team was a very proud moment of my life,” he says.

“I always wondered whether it was going to happen as I progressed quite late at about 25. Stuart Lancaster gave me my shot and I’m forever grateful to him and hopefully I repaid his faith in me.

“At 17/18, I could have easily gone in another direction. I wasn’t a superstar, but worked incredibly hard; I wasn’t like my best mate Mathew Tait, for example, who achieved what he achieved because he is a phenomenal rugby player.”

Still fit and healthy at 34, he may not have been quite ready for selection by Eddie Jones in England’s World Cup squad, but Lee would be open to lacing up his boots for a local side, alongside his duties of developing rugby at Barney.

He will also be keeping a watchful eye on England’s progress in Japan.

“I want them to win it,” he says. “We’ll get out the groups then it is knockout rugby where anything can happen. I think Eddie Jones has picked a great squad with great balance and people who are in form.

“Eddie Jones has a fantastic track record of being an unbelievable coach and a great one in world cups, so I have all the belief in the world.”