Exclusive: Cassius Cleaves on his rise from rookie prop to hot prospect with Harlequins

Cleaves first became involved with the Harlequins Academy in his early teens
©JMP for Harlequins

As Cassius Cleaves made his way to the Harlequins Senior Academy, the teenager was branded as perhaps the best winger in English schoolboy rugby.

It is easy to see why. With searing pace capable of beating opposition defenders, he complements this attribute with excellent interlinking play when coming off his own wing thanks to time spent playing in the centres.

In 2021/22, Cleaves would play for England U20s, scoring one try and in his sole Premiership Rugby Cup appearance for Harlequins, he crossed the whitewash twice.

Still only 19, he sits across the table after training at Surrey Sports Park in the knowledge that he has another session with London Scottish in the evening. He is calm, conversational and more than happy to stay inside with a flat white as the rain pours in the home counties.

Despite being one of the most talented young players in English rugby, Cleaves only took up the game as an 11-year-old. Studying at Wimbledon College, it was compulsory to play the sport and so he began his rugby journey on a Monday afternoon in a long PE lesson.

Having only ever really played football up to that point in the various little leagues that take place on the parks of Wimbledon, Cleaves instantly showed that he had talent. Climbing from the F team to the B team in just an hour, an injury in the A side meant that the novice was called up to play that very weekend...at prop.

“I can’t even remember if I scrummed or not,” Cleaves laughed. “I had no idea what I was doing. I just remember catching the ball and running as quick as I could.

“Once I realised I could do it, that I could just catch the ball and run, I just started loving it and wanted to do it more. I’d go home and train with my sister. I’d force her to chuck a ball about and from there I just started watching YouTube videos, started watching more rugby, mum started taking me to games, so I would get as much rugby in as possible within the week.”

Those YouTube videos that Cleaves would watch on repeat were a medley of delights. Describing how he ‘didn’t know the difference between league and union’ at the time, his viewing experiences would involve the likes of Shaun Johnson, Kalyn Ponga, Quade Cooper and Israel Dagg. Jason Robinson and Chris Ashton also became staples of the videos the teenager was consuming.

Joining the Quins academy in his early teens, it was in the January of 2018 that Cleaves made his way to Wellington College in Berkshire. It was partly thanks to his efforts against the school at Rosslyn Park Sevens, but also as a result of Seb’s Foundation.

Established in 2016 after the death of Harlequins Academy prop Seb Adeniran-Olule, the foundation provides a variety of services, including scholarships and rugby training programmes.

In 2021 when signing his Senior Academy terms, Cleaves became the first 'Seb Scholar' to do so. A prominent face for the Foundation, there is added motivation for the 19-year-old to push forward in his rugby career.

“I get a lot of messages now on social media from young boys asking about their rugby,” Cleaves said. “I don’t reply to them all, just because I don’t feel like I have the power to reply to them.

“I am only in the second year of my career. I don’t think any advice I give them will be all that much to them. Then I have coaches tell me that ‘they will listen to you, give them what you have got, tell them anything’.

“It didn’t really hit me at the start of Wellington, it was very easy because the school was so welcoming. It was pretty easy to forget where I had come from and what I was doing at the school and the name I was carrying.

“Seb’s mum and my mum are very close. They became very close. My mum would always remind me, and Seb’s mum would always come to the games. I would say hi to her and she is so lovely to me.

“That is always a nice reminder that I am doing it for a reason. I am not there just because I am decent at rugby. I am carrying a name with me. It is nice to be able to carry someone like Seb’s name, who was loved by all his mates.

“It is nice to carry his name as well because he was a class rugby player. Unconsciously, it gives me some expectations to set for myself but I don’t feel any pressure from it because I feel like it is a very nice thing to be able to do for me. For him as well.”

It wasn’t only on the rugby field that Cleaves would excel. His academics would give the teenager serious headaches as to whether he would join the Senior Academy or begin his university studies at Newcastle University.

After deferring his first year to focus on rugby, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that he turned down the university once more. Part of what helped him make the decision to begin with was being parachuted into the Quins environment while still in sixth form.

Training with the team while they were under the leadership of Paul Gustard, in the months that followed, Quins would have a change of coaching structure before taking the Premiership by storm and going on to win the competiton.

“You’re at home and you watch the Quins on the weekend, and they are non-stop winning,” Cleaves said, “winning by 40 points a game and it is mental to see the turnaround. When I came into the club, everyone was so happy, so welcoming, so nice to all us lads.

“There was almost no separation between Senior Academy and the senior boys in terms of relationships. It made it so much easier to fall in love with the club straight away. 

“There was definitely that change between the club, and when you become more mates with people, your rugby gets better because you want to work for your mates, you want to play for your mates.

“Everything just becomes that little bit easier. It was definitely evident to see once we came in and it was pretty special to almost be a part of that first full year where it had transitioned.”

Last season, Cleaves joined academy coach Jordan Turner-Hall as a dual-registered player with National Two South’s Worthing Radiers. Making a flurry of appearances for the south coast club after recovering from injury, it took time for the wing to settle into life lower down the league ladder, but it was something that he eventually embraced.

“At first I was quite reluctant to listen to anything they said to me and I think that was probably quite evident in the games I played but after a while, you become mates with the blokes, you spend a lot of time with them and you go on long away days with them,” Cleaves said.

“You are always quite reluctant to do that at the start, and then once you got into it, it was actually class. You really enjoyed it. You would learn off them and it was just nice to play 80 minutes of rugby almost every week.

“That 80 minutes, it’s horrible but it is also good. It gets you so match fit and that is what I needed in my first year because I have never played 80 before. It was nice to get into it and start playing those 80s, playing rough games against men at the age of 18 which I hadn’t done before.”

Now into his second season, Cleaves has some goals that he has set himself. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that some of those objectives include representing England U20s again and making more Premiership Rugby Cup squads to hopefully gain more of a footing in the first team.

Next summer, there is even a return for the World Rugby Under 20 Championships, meaning more caps and more experience is on offer. Looking to play 25 games of rugby across the 2022/23 season, a lot of those minutes will come for London Scottish in the Championship.

Involved in the club’s win over Edinburgh in pre-season, as well as their opening two games of the new campaign, playing for The Exiles is by no means a given, something that Cleaves will be all the better for.

“Joe Gray has said from the start, ‘lads if you are not up to it, just because you are Quins boys and we have this partnership, I am not going to start you’,” he said.

“I think for me, that was the most humbling thing I ever needed to hear because it was pretty easy to go to Worthing and know you are going to be starting that week. It is nice to be able to compete for a starting spot every week.

“It makes you train harder, it makes you want to do your extras more and then playing in the Champ is very competitive. It is still levels below the Premiership, but it is definitely something for a 19-year-old to take as a valuable learning lesson because you are still very young, playing in the Championship where there are a lot of ex-Prem players.”

Now part of the furniture, Cleaves describes how he is inseparable from Lennox Anyanwu, how extras are ‘non-negotiable’ and how the pair spend most of their time away from the club together too.

First team wing Cadan Murley is also a regular port of call, as is England fly-half Marcus Smith who introduced himself to Cleaves thanks to a mutual friend. It all builds into the environment at a club which means that players can be drafted in and out of the senior side with an apparent ease.

Only getting a nod to start with the senior side once last year, for a two try return, it was a season in which Cleaves learnt plenty.

“Patience for me is the one thing,” he said. “I was quite unfortunate in my first year in terms of injuries. I fractured my scaphoid in my wrist in my first league game for Worthing. I was lucky enough to play in a pre-season game for Quins, one pre-season game for Worthing and then first game, fractured scaphoid, out for three months.

“It was quite hard to watch everyone go on and play rugby. I missed the Prem Cup games, which I could of potentially been involved in, I missed a lot of Worthing games which was just crucial in your first year.

“I was kind of trying to rush everything, I was trying to get back as soon as I could and when I finally got back, I felt so nervy. My first game back was a U20s game against Oxford. First touch of the ball, I dropped it.

“I scored two tries in the game, but it was weird because I scored two tries but I knew I didn’t have a good game besides that. It was evident because I didn’t get picked the first two games of the Championships for U20s.

“It was just about patience. You see lads like Marcus and Cadan who push on quite early into their career, but you have to realise not everyone is like that. Everyone’s paths are a little different.”

And the next stop on Cleaves' journey is Harlequins' opening Premiership Rugby Cup match of the season against London Irish on Wednesday evening.