Exclusive: England U20s lock Rob Carmichael talks Hong Kong, lineouts & BUCS Super Rugby

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One week before potentially making his England U20 debut against Scotland at the Twickenham Stoop, Rob Carmichael will be commentating on his University of Nottingham teammates.

Beneath Friday night lights at Lady Bay, the home side will be taking on league leaders Loughborough, a fixture that will in many ways be the perfect end to the first week of BUCS Super Rugby in 2023.

Carmichael is in his second year of university, studying sports science at UoN, and the lock forward is speaking to TRU in between studying for his exams. 

On the books of Leicester, the 19-year-old is one of six Tigers players selected by Alan Dickens for the U20 Six Nations.

Part of two matchday squads for the Premiership champions this season, Carmichael is certainly a striking figure. Standing at 6ft 10in, the teenager was born and raised in Hong Kong and learnt his rugby with Sandy Bay RFC before his parents’ work brought him and his two brothers back to the UK in 2019.

“It was very, very weird first moving back,” Carmichael laughed. “A big culture shock. The weirdest thing for me, because I am 6ft 10in, was being able to understand what people said as I walked past them in the street.

“I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me in Hong Kong, but here when people say ‘holy crap, look how tall that guy is’, I can actually understand. It was a really big culture shock moving back. Very different.

“I got stuck into rugby right away because that was the only thing that was sort of the same.”

Attending Trent College in Long Eaton, the school’s Head of Rugby, Sean Houltham, took a liking to Carmichael and nurtured the young talent before someone on the Tigers coaching staff spotted the teenager’s “big ginger head”. 

“It was quite a big change,” Carmichael said. “In Hong Kong, it was more club focus but coming here it was more school rugby and then academy stuff. That was quite different. The first couple of years of schoolboy rugby were good fun, even though our second season didn’t really exist because of Covid.

“I joined the Academy in the November/December of 2019, and that was a big step up and a big surprise. The rugby in Hong Kong is really good so I was able to tackle and pass and ruck really well, but I had no idea what a lineout was by the time I joined the Academy. That was a big learning point.

“Everyone sort of knew what they were doing, and they’d put me in a lineout, and I’d just stand there completely lost. No idea what was going on but I finally learned so that was pretty good. I’ve taken a while.”

However, it did not take long for Carmichael to get calls from England either. Among others, England U18s coach Jonathan Pendlebury was one to lend his time to the young lock as he learnt the ropes at the set piece. Last year, Carmichael toured Italy with a number of players he will now call teammates in the England U20s set-up.

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One player who caught Carmichael’s eye was Bath’s Josh Dingley. Each were accustomed to one another and having first gone toe-to-toe while growing up in Hong Kong, the pair then rekindled that rivalry in Academy matches before eventually becoming teammates for England.

“We were both the mutant, tall freaks of our teams so I would always walk on the pitch and eye up who was taller,” Carmichael said. “Very weird coming back to the UK, and we played a game just after Covid.

“I saw him on the other side of the pitch, it was so weird. We sort of met again in this camp which has been really, really cool. It is really weird because he was an arch-nemesis back in Hong Kong, but now we are playing on the same team.” 

So far, the group have had two half-week camps together. Each has culminated in a fixture, firstly against Oxford University and most recently against Loughborough University in the East Midlands. A host of Carmichael’s friends and teammates made the short journey from Nottingham to see him in action.

Both of those warm-up games have seen England pick up handsome victories, but for this week at least, it was a return to normality for the squad. Whether that was back to full-time training with their club sides or, like Carmichael, sitting exams at university.

University is where the lion’s share of the forward’s rugby has come this season. After helping Nottingham into BUCS Super Rugby at the end of last term, he has, when needed, turned out for the side in the new campaign.

“Obviously, the priority is Leicester because I want to go pro,” Carmichael said. “I did get a bit of game time in those Prem Cup games [making his debut for the club against Sale Sharks in September].

“It was important to me to get that experience with some of the older players and learn what game day is like and stuff like that. The Prem Cup isn’t every week so I would get that experience and then get some minutes the next week with uni.

“What I find about uni rugby is it is really enjoyable. Everything I do at Leicester, I love what they do and they are all about working hard and I love that but uni rugby is more playing with your mates.

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“There is a bit of freedom and stuff like that. While it is a really good standard of rugby, it’s also quite enjoyable and good to be playing with your close mates.”

It has been something of a tough start to life for the University of Nottingham in the student game's top-flight. 

Beating Leeds Beckett on the opening day of the season has been a rare high for a team whose only other win of the campaign came a week later against Swansea University in September.

Second-bottom in the table, Carmichael is in the commentary booth on Friday night as his teammates play league leaders Loughborough.

It is a big year for age-grade rugby and one which Carmichael is no doubt looking at with a certain amount of glee. It was announced on Thursday lunchtime that there would be a return for the World Rugby U20s Championship, the tournament back after a four-year hiatus because of the global pandemic.

Carmichael’s road to South Africa will start next week in West London, with the added extra wrinkle of turning out for England in front of his Glaswegian father and an interesting family plot line.

Ready for it all, Carmichael will be sure to do everything in his power to get on a flight to the Southern Hemisphere in the final months of the season. With extra legroom, naturally.