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James Percival, London Harlequins lock, puts schoolchildren from the Emirates National School through their paces yesterday during a coaching session at Zayed Sports City.
James Percival, London Harlequins lock, puts schoolchildren from the Emirates National School through their paces yesterday during a coaching session at Zayed Sports City.

Youngsters following in giant footsteps

James Percival stood out yesterday as a giant of a man in the midst of an audience of budding rugby union players from the Emirates National School.

James Percival stood out yesterday as a giant of a man in the midst of an audience of budding rugby union players from the Emirates National School.

Massive in physique and character is the courageous Percival, who has become a role model for those seeking to overcome sporting adversity by defying doctors' orders not to play again after breaking his neck in the rugged exchanges brought about by the modern game.

Percival, 26, who stands 6ft 5ins tall and weighs nearly 118kg, suffered that life-threatening injury four years ago when playing for Northampton Saints against Munster.

The lock forward admitted to breaking down in tears on his hospital bed when being told that he would never play again.

He refused to accept that diagnosis and built himself back up to peak fitness to become an integral part of the Harlequins team who are seen as a developing force in the English and European game.

Percival, who is recovering from yet another serious injury - a ruptured cruciate ligament - urges those who have followed him into the bruising sport to keep believing when times are hard.

And that was one of the messages he sought to convey to the first of a series of eight schoolboy teach-ins he and Conor O'Shea, the Harlequins director of rugby, are conducting in Abu Dhabi this week.

O'Shea described Percival as "a fabulous example of how to overcome adversity". He said: "To come back from injury and then to treat the next setback the way he has done was tremendous. It says an enormous amount for his character. I think most of the public will be wishing him a good break in his career after all the ill luck he has had.

"He has had some terrible luck with injuries and it may have been too much for many players to cope with. It is a lonely life coming back from injury. All the players are friends but if you are not in the 15 who start the match it is never the same."

Percival praised his club's main sponsor, Etihad Airways, for setting up the coaching schools - six of them at Zayed Sports City, the other two in Al Ain, today - and giving the children a basic introduction to what can turn into an extremely technical sport.

"Getting kids involved at this level is amazing," said Percival, who is on the periphery of the England international set-up and will be seeking to stake a claim this coming season for inclusion in Martin Johnson's final squad when they board the plane heading for the World Cup in New Zealand next year.

"Rugby breeds such a good culture. If I hadn't taken up rugby I would be a completely different person than I am today. All my characteristics would be different," said Percival.

"You have a much better outlook on your life and your achievements in the game give you tremendous confidence for dealing with other aspects of life generally.

"There is always a possibility that one of the kids who we are teaching here will go all the way to the top of the game. And if that happens Harlequins will get first refusal on him which is what it is all about.

"But even if it doesn't happen the kids will be getting a valuable grounding on what being involved in team sports can provide."

Kieran Blogg, a PE teacher at the Emirates National School, was also enthusiastic about what effects the session would have on his group of 50 pupils.

"I think this will have a massive overall impact on the kids," he said as he watched Percival and O'Shea put a predominantly Emirati class through their paces before they gave way to the afternoon group from the Al Yasmina and Al Raha schools.

Blogg, a New Zealander, who is also head coach of the Abu Dhabi Harlequins second team and is one of the assistants to first-team coach Alastair Thompson, added: "It would be fantastic if any of the boys here today could one day play for the Abu Dhabi Harlequins.

"There are a couple of them out there who have the potential. They are all so excited about this. Having somebody like James here as a role model has made it even more of a thrill for them."

Mohammed al Mahmood, Abu Dhabi Sports Council's general secretary, was delighted with the success of the first two of the coaching sessions.

He said: "The Junior Rugby Festival is a fantastic sporting initiative for the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi Sports Council wishes to express its support and thanks to Etihad Airways, Harlequins and all the event partners for leading the way with the Middle East's youth rugby programme."

 

wjohnson@thenational.ae

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