Simon Culley Interview: “We make it tough for teams to come and play here but we know Bath will come with quality"

Simon Culley is hoping to lead Durham into the last four of the BUCS Super Rugby Championship

With the regular season of BUCS Super Rugby having come to a close, we now look ahead to the knockout stages, and there are certainly some enticing clashes in the pipeline.

After falling short in the semi-finals last year, and the final the year prior, Durham University will be looking to bring the National Championship trophy to the North East in 2024.

Durham’s head of rugby, Simon Culley, spoke to TRU about what he expects from Bath in the quarters, the competitiveness of the league and the impact Newcastle Falcons rising star Guy Pepper has had throughout the club.


Durham finished fourth in the league this year - slipping down from second on the final day of the season after losing to Swansea.

“Been some very good highs, and a few lows,” was Culley’s overall reflection of the season so far.

“We've had some really big wins and they have been a reflection on the potential that this side can reach, but we've had some disappointing losses where we haven't lived up to our potential.

“The challenge going into knockouts is to deliver more of the former and less of the latter.”

In the Women’s National League, Durham have struggled to reach the levels of success they have achieved in recent years. They have managed only two wins this season and were recently knocked out in the quarter-finals by Loughborough, with the African Violet ruthlessly dispatching them 96-12.

Despite struggling to find form, Culley still believes there is reason to be optimistic

“For the women, it's been a very long, tough season. A very, very young team. We lost some experienced players at the start and recruitment's incredibly tough given the RFU's attitude to North-East rugby now which we find incredibly disappointing.

“We're focusing on ourselves, focusing on creating rugby players and giving girls who are late developers their opportunities.

“We're really delighted with some of the young players we brought in from the North-East. These are girls who worked incredibly hard to get into a university like Durham, and they're developing really well but it's a massive step up, a monster step up from Under-18 to be in the Women's National League.

“We're excited to see where our talented pool of freshers goes over the next 18 months.”

Whilst the season for the Women's side has come to an end, the BUCS Super Rugby quarter-finals will see Durham welcome Bath University in a 4th vs 5th battle.

Both teams have shown glimpses of their immense qualities but have also struggled to find consistency. The boys in Blue and Gold have already lost twice to the northern institution this campaign, but Culley is not underestimating the threat Bath brings to the table.

“We know they're going to come with a lot of quality. Aaron James, brilliant coach, fantastic bloke, someone I've got an incredible amount of time for. And year after year, he's at the forefront in producing good university rugby teams.”

Beating Durham at Hollow Drift this season is something only Cardiff Met University have managed, so Bath will know the size of the task at hand.

“I think it's a cool place to play - it's an incredibly emotive place to play, it's the heart of the city and it's a place the boys love playing, “ adds Culley, who is in his first full season in charge at Durham following the departure of Alex Keay last year.

“We make it tough for teams to come and play against. It's a very wide pitch, a very big pitch. We work very hard on being as fit as anyone that we play against. It's windy and the conditions can be tough there. It breeds a very resilient player.

“We tend to be fit, we tend to be resilient, we tend to be tough to play against. Those things all combine into making it a tough place to visit.”

Whilst Hollow Drift has traditionally been a difficult place to visit, there is a very strong argument that there are no easy grounds to go to in BUCS Super Rugby, with the competitiveness of the league rising year on year.

The last three seasons have seen three different league champions in Exeter, Loughborough and Durham. This year, there were six points separating the bottom three and three points separating 2nd, 3rd and 4th.

This has resulted in another exhilarating regular season campaign which has provided endless entertainment for viewers, but also many opportunities for the players to develop themselves.

“I think the top four has been the same for the last three years, which is probably more a reflection on the depth available to those clubs than necessarily a lack of competition because I think it's an incredibly competitive league," Culley says.

“Any one of them from the top seven could probably finish in the top four every year, I think there's very few teams who would struggle to put together a top four run. Everyone in that league is more than capable of beating everyone, which is why it's brilliant to play in it.

“It's such an important part of the development of the boys who play in it. It's really meaningful rugby with good support, where the lads are playing with their friends. It's competitive and they have to be switched on in the game. That makes for a brilliant development potential in guys learning how to play and learning how to forge themselves as rugby players.”

Durham University have definitely forged many of its students into great rugby professionals, with backrower Fitz Harding, who was appointed Bristol Bears club captain for this season, and Josh Basham being great examples.

The North-East side seem to have a habit of developing quality backrowers, and the latest name on the list is Guy Pepper. The flanker has had a meteoric rise to success this year with some outstanding performances in a Newcastle Falcons shirt earning him a recent England ‘A’ appearance.

“Guy’s a generational talent, so having him around is awesome,” said Culley.

“And he's such a nice, humble guy. He still comes into the gym with the lads, he's helped doing some bit of video analysis and he's come to watch games. He is just a really good human being.”

Whilst Pepper has gone on to benefit from the relationship between the university and Newcastle Falcons, other players throughout the squad have deals with other Premiership sides around the country.

“We're lucky - we've got 12 contracted players across seven different clubs. We have got an excellent relationship with Newcastle Falcons, and we've got Mark Dormer and Finn Baker there.

“Max Pepper has been in and out, and he’s someone they really need to sign because he’s a wonderful player.

“But then we've got Osian Thomas at [Leicester] Tigers and Toby Thame at [Northampton] Saints, Arthur Green and Will Parry at Bath. We've got Harry Willard, who's contracted in Japan.

“We’ve got a very good relationship with Falcons but we don’t tie ourselves just to them.

"We're very aware Durham is an elite academic institute and no matter how good you are at rugby, you come to Durham because you're putting your academics first. 

“We will work with anyone who wants to come to Durham who also happens to be a potential professional rugby player. We're happy to work with those clubs as long as they're happy to work with us.”

Whilst Durham is a university that is constantly producing academy-level players, Culley also emphasises the amount of talent that lies within the club as a whole.

“There is a silly amount of quality - it’s tremendous. We're very, very fortunate in terms of that. Part of that, though, is finding the commitment levels and the type of rugby that those guys want to play.

“Just having talent isn't actually the make or break. Once you're breaking into a place like Durham, and that'll be the same at any of the BSR unions I'm sure, if you want to go further, it's not really about having the talent. Talent is like your buy-in. If you’ve got talent, that gets you looked at, that gets you the opportunity. It's then about how much hard work you're willing to put in.

“We really pride ourselves on the boys that come through our system who end up making it, maybe sometimes only in their third year as first-team players, but who tend to be some of the best-value players that we get as members of the club.”

No matter where they come in the league or how far they get in the knockouts, it is clear that a set-up like Durham’s will continue to produce talent in abundance, especially with a Head of Rugby as experienced as Simon Culley.

The North-East side will be favourites going into their clash with Bath, but if anything can be taken from the league campaign, it is that anyone can beat anyone. 

BSR Quarter Finals

Durham University vs Bath University

Exeter University vs Nottingham University

Loughborough University vs Leeds Beckett University

Hartpury University vs Cardiff Met University