There is a moment that Tom Pearson picks out as one of the highlights of his rugby journey. Earlier this year, during an interview with Cardiff Met TV Sport, he selected the university’s victory over Exeter back in February 2020.
It is perfectly understandable why he pinpoints this particular BUCS Super Rugby fixture. Exeter were, and still remain, one of the strongest student sides in the country so securing a win against the Devonshire outfit is always a huge result.
But perhaps more poignantly, the 20-15 success was the penultimate time Pearson pulled on the Archers jersey on his home turf.
When he and his fellow teammates were mobbed by their peers at the full-time whistle, it would have been almost impossible to imagine what was just around the corner as the Covid-19 pandemic denied one of the university’s most exciting talents the chance to represent Met in his third and final year.
“It was a real shame that we didn’t get to see him flourish in his third year,” Cardiff Met head coach Ian Gardner tells TRU. “I think we missed out on seeing Tom at his absolute best in a Cardiff Met jersey, but he was exceptional when he played for us.”
Anyone who has followed the progress of Pearson over the last few months will know the 22-year-old graduated from Cardiff Met in July before climbing the next rung of the rugby ladder to join the London Irish Academy.
The buzz and excitement when he was rapidly working his way through the Cardiff Met system has overflowed onto the big stage after Pearson’s eye-catching debut for Irish against Exeter Chiefs in October.
Since then, the versatile forward has started three of the last five games for the Exiles (in all competitions) including on two occasions against Saracens as well as against Premiership champions Harlequins last weekend.
“He made his debut against Exeter and I called him to congratulate him and he was on the bus to Sandy Park!” laughs Gardner. “He said he’d give me a ring when he got there! I spoke to him later on that evening and he was just really excited and looking forward to the game.
“He is a top lad who works really, really hard. We knew he had moments of potential and in fairness, he has gone in there, hit the ground running and done an exceptional job in the games he has played so far.”
Gardner highlights Pearson’s natural ability which allowed the coaches at Cardiff Met to fast-track him from a relatively unknown quantity into one of the stars of their BUCS Super Rugby set-up.
His physicality, his ball-carrying and his pace are some of the attributes which Gardner references in Pearson’s ‘all-court game’ and it is an opinion which is echoed by London Irish’s head coach Les Kiss.
“I noticed a young lad who had some qualities and you have seen those qualities recently!” he says.
“He is just uncomplicated, if I can say so! He just went forward and he goes hard. He is as raw as anything still, but a great young lad who wants to learn everyday and it is just about making sure we don’t complicate his mind.
“His physicality has come through with the ball and without the ball. He has a good eye for reading situations which can happen quickly so he is quite adaptable and agile in his mindset and how he can move.
“I think there have also been a couple of moments where we have been, not so much surprised, but enlightened about other capacities. To get through that line against Saracens [in the Premiership Cup], to cut to the ball in the air and beat Dom Morris, who is a handy centre, that takes skill and he did that beautifully.
“Then he took off a bit quicker than me! He drew the man with his pace and change of pace and then we put it away. Tom is a work in progress for sure, but he has stood up to the plate so far and is doing a really good job for us.”
These stories of university graduates making an instant impact at a professional level are becoming less surprising. Of course, the arrivals of Alex Dombrandt and Luke Northmore at Quins lit the touch paper on the fanfare which is now associated with Cardiff Met but more and more players across some of the top institutions in the UK are being recognised.
Pearson’s journey to the Brentford Community Stadium highlights this more than most. In his interview with Cardiff Met TV Sport, he said he was in ‘tears at the age of five or six’ because he wasn’t keen on taking up the sport, but by the end of his university adventure, that had all changed.
“We are in constant dialogue with a lot of the Prem clubs, the Welsh regions and even the Scottish clubs as well,” Gardner adds. “I think they have started to recognise, particularly over the border in England, the value and the quality of BUCS Super Rugby. The players that are there, they are able to bridge that gap relatively quickly to professional rugby so it is a great advert for that.
“In Tom’s case, he was asked, along with Ellis Bevan, to go and train with Cardiff Blues. Straight away, they were like ‘wow.’ For example, Tom’s strength and conditioning stats were up there with the top boys in Cardiff like Shane Lewis-Hughes and Jim Botham and people like that who are currently with Wales so he was right up there with all of those and even surpassing them!
“Cardiff were super keen to sign him. They put an offer on the table and the Ospreys then came in and put an offer on the table. Almost at the same time, Irish came in for him and he obviously went down there.”
Kiss says the Exiles ‘pulled the trigger’ on signing Pearson following the recommendations from academy manager Patrick O’Grady, and a move to the English capital represented a new start for the latest university talent to come off the BUCS Super Rugby conveyor belt.
“It has been an interesting journey for Tom,” Kiss adds. “It sort of came out of the blue for myself, Declan [Kidney] and the senior coaching staff that there is this young lad that Patrick and the boys were looking at. Sometimes these guys slip through the net and you are wondering where it goes, but we just made a decision to pull the trigger and do that.
“There is something to look at there [BUCS Super Rugby pathway]. There are some gems there without a doubt.
“I have been through academy systems through most of the world now and most major competitions, but the academies don’t always get it right. That doesn’t mean it is wrong. Sometimes you just make a choice and these guys exist somewhere and pop up somewhere, so I think it is always important to have the radar out and the BUCS system is a good one.”
University Rugby appears to be strengthening its status within professional pathways - and with a new term on the horizon, the student game is only going in one direction #UniRugbyhttps://t.co/HpADfsWoGf— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) September 28, 2021
?? @BUCSSuperRugby pic.twitter.com/FhdoPkgBn7
If thoughts had entered Pearson’s mind about when he would first trot out as a London Irish player in the Premiership, he may not have imagined it would be against Exeter, followed by Saracens and Harlequins.
Some coaches may have protected an emerging talent from experiencing the rip-roaring nature of clashes against the three most recent champions but Kiss and London Irish continue to back their youngsters.
“If you are waiting for a player to be completely ready all the time, they will never play”, Kiss explains. “It was a big call to put him in front of Exeter, but there is something there that you will gain from it rather than what you will lose from it.
“He has got a complex way to approach the game and he just does the right thing that is in front of him and he does that well and that quality came through. Young guys, you back them at the right time and you back them with the experience around them.
“I will say this about all the young guys, they are just top young lads and Tom is no different. The one thing I noticed when Tom first came in, he slipped straight into the locker room in an appropriate way. He is not a big talker, but just did the little things off the pitch which you expect every player to do.
“I remember the first day he came, he started calling me ‘Kissy’ straight away! He didn’t go through the ‘Mr Kiss’ or Les’ or anything! He just called me Kissy and I thought, ‘that is pretty cool, he wants to be part of the group.’ I think he just relates to everyone. He is not trying to be anything he isn’t. He is not trying to be ahead of himself and I think that comes through in his demeanour.”
Kiss’ view of an unpretentious and grounded Pearson is reinforced by Gardner: “The thing about Tom is he is quite laid back and those Premiership games wouldn’t have phased him. When we spoke before Exeter, he was just excited!
“It was all about him going out there and not changing anything; just being Tom Pearson and not trying to be anything that he is not. His interview afterwards [v Saracens in the Premiership Cup] on BT Sport was excellent and that was just him all over. It was just the real personality of Tom coming through. He is a top, top lad who works hard both on and off the field.”
In that sense, credit must go to the environment Gardner and Director of Rugby Danny Milton have created at Cardiff Met. With both coaches being academic lecturers as well, the onus on achieving a good education is arguably more important than the rugby side of things.
Pearson, Dombrandt and Northmore are shining examples of the holistic individuals Cardiff Met have produced and the current crop of Archers are also finding the right balance between their studies and their BUCS Super Rugby commitments.
On the pitch, Gardner wouldn’t be grading Met’s recent results too highly as his side head into consecutive Welsh derbies against Swansea and Cardiff on the back of successive defeats.
“We were second best in every department,” says Gardner, reflecting on Wednesday’s 30-21 loss to Durham. “We gave away 19 penalties and you are never going to win a game if you give away 19 penalties.
“They were just better than us in contact and in terms of physicality. Our maul defence was poor, but in fairness, they took advantage of that, made very few errors and were worthy winners.
“We have looked at the last few games and obviously against Durham, but against Loughborough as well, we have come up second best in both. That means there is a big emphasis on the Welsh derbies in terms of not only league position but obviously bragging rights in Wales.
“Swansea went well against Durham, Cardiff went well against Durham. It shows both have upped their game and we were fortunate against Cardiff in the first clash [26-23 in October] to pick up a result so they will be looking at us and it is certainly a game they are going to target.”
TRU’s University Rugby Wrap-Up
Met’s defeat leaves them fourth in the BUCS Super Rugby table, whilst Durham’s seventh win in a row keeps their unbeaten record intact.
Second-placed Loughborough made it three victories on the spin as they beat Hartpury 27-22 whilst elsewhere, Exeter ran in six tries to secure a comprehensive 34-10 win over Swansea and Leeds Beckett produced a clinical first-half display to earn a 33-10 triumph at Bath. Northumbria’s meeting with Cardiff was postponed due to Covid-19 concerns.
In the Women’s Premier National League, Loughborough still lead the way despite losing 36-5 to Cardiff Met whilst Edinburgh ended 2021 by hammering Northumbria 74-5, and that result now leaves them one point off the top.
Durham and Hartpury face each other next Wednesday in the final fixture of the year before the league takes a break until February.
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