Josh Bayliss: 'It's frustrating when people say everyone who went to private school is posh'

·6 min read
Josh Bayliss: 'It's frustrating when people say everyone who went to private school is posh' - LEE THOMAS
Josh Bayliss: 'It's frustrating when people say everyone who went to private school is posh' - LEE THOMAS

If Eddie Jones was not previously aware that obsessing over class is England's true national sport, he presumably is now.

It is a week since the Australian casually lobbed his hand grenade at the private school system, and rugby's reliance on it, and the reverberations are still being felt. There have been public slap-downs by his employers at the RFU, and the independent school sector itself, but no hint of regret from the man himself. Anyone expecting that may be waiting some time.

Jones did not mention any specific examples but if he was searching for the epitome of a private school sporting production line, Millfield would be a pretty good starting point. The Somerset institution's list of famous alumni is not restricted to English rugby but nonetheless reads like a who's who of rugby talents: Sir Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, Chris Robshaw, Mako Vunipola, Callum Sheedy and Adam Hastings have all passed through its halls.

Another name to add to the list is Josh Bayliss. The 24-year-old is one of rugby's rising stars, having already been a stand-in captain at Bath and promoted to the Scotland senior squad, and if Millfield needed a spokesman to defend it from Jones' barbs, they could not find a better one.

School life was important to Bayliss, hence our decision to conduct this interview while we take a tour of his alma mater. We are meeting before Jones' public savaging of a system he believes leads to students living "closeted lives", but his appraisal of Millfield's role in shaping his sporting career serve as the most eloquent riposte.

“You talk about schools around the country [like Millfield] and someone says, ‘oh, everyone's posh’. And it is frustrating whenever you hear that. You can't deny that the opportunity and the facilities are absolutely incredible. But the friends that I made came from such far-reaching environments, different upbringings, different cultures. It's a massive melting pot here. You get to learn from those people and experience so much. I think it prepares you for life when you leave.

“I’d urge anyone who has those preconceptions to come and actually visit or meet someone who came to school here before they make a judgment. It's easy just to think, ‘their parents must be really rich’, but actually there's lots of different people here. There is always more to everyone’s story.”

Bayliss certainly threw himself into Millfield life, playing hockey and cricket, as well as representing the school in triple jump.

Josh Bayliss playing cricket at Millfield - LEE THOMAS
Josh Bayliss playing cricket at Millfield - LEE THOMAS
Josh Bayliss playing hockey at Millfield - LEE THOMAS
Josh Bayliss playing hockey at Millfield - LEE THOMAS

He was head boy, too, and he makes a beeline for the boards listing everyone to have held the honour - not, it should be said, because he wants to trumpet his own achievements, but to point to the name of his younger sister, Emily, who became head girl.

Bayliss, who is Scottish qualified via his maternal grandmother, is keen to point out the sacrifices his parents made to get him and Emily to Millfield. His father was working in Indonesia while his mother, Frances, ferried the two day students to rugby, hockey and cricket festivals around the country.

“I never forget or take for granted the sacrifice that they made and that my mum made, with my dad working abroad," he says. “What they gave up to give me and my sister the opportunity to come here was amazing. I'd like to think that if I'm in that position in the future I'd try to make the same decisions.”

Bayliss can talk about everything from what makes a good captain, to a lesson in designing his own flat-pack furniture and his fondness for American history – particularly around the Great Depression and the Jazz Age. The No 8 is as well-rounded as they come, but appreciates that going to a school like Millfield - he gained an all-round scholarship in prep school at the age of 10 - gave him every chance of success in rugby.

“Playing for the first team here really felt almost like a junior professional setup. Then it was how seriously everyone took it,” he says. “It's going to be a massive step from schoolboy to professional but I think that kind of closed the gap a tiny bit and helped me when I did move on to Bath.”

Bayliss was a talented batsman, having been on Somerset’s books as a child, but made the decision to focus on rugby at the age of 16, smashing the stereotype of such schools hot-housing students on the rugby field.

“There's no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't be playing professional rugby now if I didn't come to Millfield," he adds. "I'd go as far to say I wouldn't be half the person I want to be, or I am at the moment, without the school, in terms of life lessons. It was probably more off the pitch in many ways than actually on it.

“I've never been and I'm still not the most outgoing person or the sort that wants to be in the spotlight or anything like that. But I think you're always challenged here. I ended up doing a bit of public speaking and I used to speak in assemblies.

“I think that this place instills confidence in you and almost the quiet confidence that you need to back yourself when you can to do things out of your comfort zone.”

Josh Bayliss at Millfield - LEE THOMAS
Josh Bayliss at Millfield - LEE THOMAS

One challenge that Bayliss had to overcome was being injured for most of his final year meaning he lost the ability to play rugby. Instead, he poured his time into the role of head boy, recalling how he had to arrange a Remembrance Sunday celebration and how it “improved my dreadful organisation skills and made me do things I didn’t think I could”.

It is his time as head boy that pips making the first XV as his proudest memory. “I remember when I told my mum that I'd been asked to be a head boy, she was fairly emotional about it. And I was like, ‘oh, my word, it's quite a big deal’. Do you know what I mean? And that made me incredibly proud.

“It also taught me a lot about empathy, I guess, and the ability to put myself in different people's shoes and never jump to conclusions or assume, because I've met so many different people.”

The likes of Jones will never be convinced that drawing too deeply, and often, from the well of the independent sector will be good for English sport. Bayliss is not denying his privilege but, equally, he is determined to knock down lazy stereotyping.

“All I'd say is, don’t judge a book by the cover,” he says. “Wait until you have got to know someone and you might be surprised.”