Exclusive – Ollie Leatherbarrow on uni rugby lessons, Exeter and Newcastle Falcons

During his final two years in Exeter University the side picked up back-to-back BUCS Super Rugby titles
During Ollie Leatherbarrow's final two years in Exeter University the side picked up back-to-back BUCS Super Rugby titles
©BUCS Sport

After his arrival to Newcastle Falcons, Ollie Leatherbarrow is hoping to take his chance in the Gallagher Premiership next season.

Preseason is young, with the players at Kingston Park adjusting to life under the management of new head coach, Alex Codling. 

Leatherbarrow comes to the north-east highly rated, his time at the University of Exeter and Exeter Chiefs laden with two BUCS Super Rugby (BSR) titles and Scotland age grade caps.

Leatherbarrow’s journey from university to the professional game is an increasingly common story. 

In fact, the 21-year-old is not the only member of his family to have stepped out of BSR into the professional game, with older brother Teddy having signed for Scarlets.

In many ways, Teddy has been a major source of inspiration for the back-row. Following his brother to Kirkham Grammar School, Leatherbarrow would similarly play age group rugby at Sale Sharks before assessing his options in his final year at school.

Four of the former University of Exeter captain sending four of his univeristy applications to institutions that had rugby teams in the top flight and with Exeter's strong link to Sandy Park, the prospect of progressing his rugby career seemed to be the perfect option.

“I always saw Ted at Sale doing well, playing for the 18s and England 18s,” Leatherbarrow said. “I was always looking up to him to see what was next.

“I did the Sale 16s, Scotland 16s, Sale 18s, and at the end of it I had done two years and I thought ‘do I want to stay at Sale or take a risk?’.

“My mum is a teacher, she always banged on about us having a good education and I am fairly smart as well, so I thought I’d take the risk, go down to Exeter and with no contract and see what I could do there.

“I didn’t want to have no degree and be 20 or 21 and it not having gone quite to plan. I took that risk and then that went well to be signed with Chiefs after my second year.

“Then I thought it was a similar thing again when Newcastle came up. I have moved once and taken and it went well, I have got a degree, played rugby at one of the best levels for young lads, so I thought I would take another risk and move to another place.

“Not many lads do it, but I felt it was the best thing for me to do; challenging myself in a new environment and it sort of forces you to grow up as well. That sort of is where the desire has been.”

Forged in university rugby

Arriving at Topsham as an 18-year-old, Leatherbarrow’s first year at university was blighted by Covid-19. 

No rugby was played, the back-row’s only competitive action came in the Six Nations U20s Championship which took place at the Cardiff Arms Park.

Thanks to his agent and Exeter’s link with Chiefs, Leatherbarrow would get to train at Sandy Park and meet the likes of Christ Tshiunza, Oli Burrows, Dan John, Tom Cairns and Archie Hill, who all were similarly marrying their time as contracted players and as students.

At the time Leatherbarrow was without a contract with Chiefs, although it was confirmation of the youngster’s decision to move to Devon.

Eventually making his Exeter University debut in National 3, an MCL injury would stall his debut season, his return coming against Hartpury University early on in 2022 against Hartpury.

Scoring two tries and named Player of the Match in that debut appearance, a week later Leatherbarrow was taking on England in the U20s Six Nations, signed his first Chiefs contract the following week before a fractured eye socket and cheek bone kept him out of contention the rest of the season.

Sat in the stands at Sixways Stadium as a Dafydd Jenkins inspired Exeter raced to a first BUCS Super Rugby title against Durham University, the 21-year-old was heavily involved as skipper in his team’s title defence, although a ban late in the season meant that Leatherbarrow once more had to sit on the side line as Loughborough University were beaten in North London.

Much like Cardiff Met, Exeter became the focus of national media as they produced the likes of Jenkins and Tshiunza, who were dual registered with their university side and receiving national call-ups.

Ollie Leatherbarrow is hoping to make strides in his professional career with Newcastle Falcons
©Chris Lishman/Newcastle Falcons

Other university players similarly found themselves as regulars in Rob Baxter’s team, the likes of Will Becconsall getting serious minutes in both the Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup. 

“The relationship between Chiefs and the uni is so seamless,” Leatherbarrw said. “It is not like Roma (Zheng), who has now signed for Quins and when he plays for Quins it is going to be a big thing.

“Daf played a whole season of BUCS Super Rugby and just seamlessly fit in at Chiefs. That is a credit to how well the partnership is run. One week you can be playing for uni and the next you can be on the bench (for Chiefs). 

“No one is shouting about it on social media because it just sort of happens. But that is a credit to how good the relationship is between the two.”

Another part of what made the Green and Whites’ retention of BUCS Super Rugby title was that the side were fighting on another front. 

Gaining promotion from National 3 to National 2 West a season prior, Exeter’s squad depth was pushed to the limit and a real test of Richard Hodges’ coaching credentials.

You then add to that a collection of the team’s elite playing group playing top flight rugby for Chiefs most weekends, it certainly made for interesting viewing and plenty of cause for celebration in the South West.

“It was nice at the end of the season,” Leatherbarrow said. “The 23 got medals (following their victory over Loughborough University), and then BUCS sent us medals for everyone else that had played.

“We did a big presentation with Keith (Fleming, Exeter’s Director of Rugby), and the sheer amount of boys that have played, and everyone had made a key contribution at some point in the season, that was probably 40 lads, maybe more.

“The squad depth we had at Exeter was impressive. We had the ones that come on loan from Chiefs, and you have the boys that come straight from school. They are probably the ones that make it tick.

“We obviously missed Tom Cairns and Will Becconsall, who we probably expected to have all season, but then Niall Armstrong made that nine shirt his. Even when Tom came back, Niall was still holding onto that shirt.

“Tom did a great job off the bench to score that winning try (in the BSR Final). It is those boys that have come to uni first, really care about it, they add the depth and are the key thing.

“If we got Daf and them on top, then lovely, but they are the boys that really make the team tick and that is what makes the uni so successful I think.”

New beginnings with Newcastle

Pre-season is young at Kingston Park. Alex Codling is still within his first month as head coach, the 49-year-old only recently removed from leading Oyonnax from Pro D2 to the Top 14 across the channel.

Already the signs are promising, Leatherbarrow already enthused about the time he has been able to spend with ball-in-hand. 

While yet to experience the joys of a conditioning session on Tynemouth beach, there is little doubt that those days putting in the really hard yards are ahead of Newcastle.

During his time in Devon, Ollie Leatherbarrow was contracted to Exeter Chiefs and represented Scotland U20
©BUCS Sport

After an 11th place finish in the Premiership, which was blighted by the notion that the former English champions would be taking voluntary relegation, there is much room for improvement.

“I have really enjoyed it,” Leatherbarrow said. “It’s like a fresh start, there is a lot of new faces at the club, they have had a fair turnover of players, there is an overall sense of excitement really.”

At the time of speaking, Leatherbarrow had just received word of Falcons’ Challenge Cup pool, in which trips to France and South Africa beckon.

It adds to the excitement of his new start in the North East, while continuing to realise that long held ambition of being a professional rugby player.

Leatherbarrow weighed up a number of options for clubs as his economics degree was concluding in Exeter.

Early on in his time in Newcastle, the 21-year-old believes he is in the best place possible to progress his burgeoning career.

“The main thing I wanted to do was step into senior rugby, because you see that some boys get to 23 or 24 and they have not really played senior rugby; I didn’t want that to be me,” Leatherbarrow said.

“You have seen the success of other players (move into professional rugby from BUCS Super Rugby), and I am not saying I am going to go like that, but the opportunity they have had in a fresh environment is something I want to try and emulate.”