Exclusive: England Students boss Darren Fearn ahead of France showdown

Darren Fearn has spent six years coaching England Students

Before England Students’ face-off with France Universities, Darren Fearn has said university rugby has never been in a better place.

Preparing his Students’ team for the past week for their 4pm kick-off at Coventry Rugby’s Butts Park Arena, the coach expects a stern challenge from their Gallic opponents.

Selecting the best university rugby players from across the United Kingdom for the clash was certainly a headache for the Newcastle University boss.

Fearn said: “There is lots of talent and I am very aware there are players disappointed not to be in it. There will be people that feel other players should be in it. That’s fine. They are entitled to their opinion. 

“We watch a lot of rugby, the attributes players have and the way they perform. We look for consistency, big moments, big games, there is a lot that goes into it and there is balance as well.

“We don’t know the personnel we are playing, but France are going to be a serious outfit.”

In the past year alone university rugby has seen a monumental growth in coverage.

As the likes of Dafydd Jenkins (Wales) and Ross Vintcent (Italy) have made inroads in Test rugby, more inches in the newspaper have become dedicated to BUCS Super Rugby.

This week alone Newcastle Falcons announced the signing of Leeds Beckett University twins Connor and Callum Hancock, who will both be propping for the Students in Warwickshire on Saturday afternoon.

Players are also splitting their commitments at university more too, with professional clubs offering the hybrid option of being part of an academy, studying at university and playing BUCS rugby.

Having been at the coalface of university rugby for the past decade with Northumbria University, Newcastle University and England Students, Fearn believes that its stock has never been higher.

He said: “There is probably more of a spotlight on it. If you look back over recent England teams, you have got people like Mark Wilson who played in a World Cup final. He played England Students 12 years ago. 

“Then you have got Lawrence Dallaglio before that, Richard Hill, who both won the World Cup. The university game has always been there for talent, I just think the spotlight is on it more.

“The twins have signed for Newcastle Falcons, Jasper McGuire (Newcastle University) who played last year has signed for Saracens from the Northern Prem (second division of BUCS rugby). 

“You have got lads within this group that have been in the Premiership - Jack Forsyte who was at Worcester Warriors before things happened there. 

“There are some really serious rugby players within the university pyramid and that is what is great about England Students.

“There is definitely players outside this squad who will go on to have very good careers within rugby because there is more than just 23 really good players within the university pyramid. 

“It is in a good place, and it needs to keep growing. That is the important thing.”

For this French challenge, Fearn has named a supremely strong England outfit.

Captained by returning flanker Lucas Dorrell, who Fearn has seen ‘fill out’ in the past 12 months, there is quality across the pitch.

Dorrell is one of five University of Exeter players that were defeated in the BUCS Super Rugby Final several weeks ago, while there are three selected from the champions, Loughborough.

There is also the intrigue of Durham University scrum-half Max Pepper being selected on the wing in a Springboks-esque move by Fearn.

There is also a place for players who ply their trade outside of university rugby’s top division.

Newcastle University’s Oliver Fletcher starts at hooker after a dominant season and four Premiership Rugby Cup appearances for Newcastle Falcons, while at lock Jay Ecclesfield from Nottingham Trent University has also plied his trade in the Championship for Nottingham Rugby this term.

Prior to kick-off England’s head coach, who will be taking up a post as Doncaster Knights’ new forwards coach this summer, is keen for his players to simply play their best in this showpiece fixture.

Fearn said: “Just for the lads to be able to showcase themselves, their institutions and their programmes. 

“Ultimately we want a good game of rugby. Both teams want to win, but if we can go out there and showcase ourselves.

“I want these lads to represent their institutions and where they are as a group. Same as France. 

“There are 46 players going out there and showcasing themselves. That is what we want. 

“These players aren’t the finished article. Of course they aren’t. This is a development opportunity, it is a Test match in front of a good crowd and all of these players are going to be better for it tomorrow.”

England Students: 15 Iwan Price-Thomas (University of Bath), 14 Connor Moyse (University of Nottingham), 13 Charlie McCaig (University of Exeter), 12 Tommy Mathews (Hartpury University), 11 Max Pepper (Durham University), 10 Morgan Meredith (Loughborough University), 9 Rhys Price (Hartpury University); 1 Connor Hancock (Leeds Beckett University), 2 Oliver Fletcher (Newcastle University), 3 Callum Hancock (Leeds Beckett University), 4 Jay Ecclesfield (Nottingham Trent University), 5 Will Jeanes (University of Bath), 6 Lucas Dorrell (C, University of Exeter), 7 Jack Forsythe (University of Exeter), 8 Louie Kirkham (Leeds Beckett University).

Replacements: 16 Joshua MacAndrew (University of Exeter), 17 Eric Nixon (Loughborough University), 18 Tom Gulley (University of Exeter), 19 Barnaby Waddell (Cardiff Metropolitan University), 20 Arthur Green (Durham University), 21 Charlie Briers (Loughborough University), 22 Joe Mounsey (Newcastle University), 23 Josiah Edwards-Giraud (Hartpury University).