James Cherry Interview: Finishing my last year by playing for England Students will be another milestone

James Cherry captained the University of Nottingham into BUCS Super Rugby
©BUCS Sport

After leading the University of Nottingham to the BUCS Super Rugby quarter-finals in their first season in the competition, James Cherry is hoping to finish his campaign with a flourish when he represents England Students this weekend in France.

During his time playing the university game, Cherry has matured into someone who is looking to step further into elite rugby now that his time in the East Midlands is coming to a close.

Captaining his university for the past two years, the back-row has also contributed to Championship side Nottingham Rugby who concluded the recent campaign in ninth place.

Darren Fearn is once again coaching England Students in their quest to end a long wait for a victory on foreign soil, the Newcastle University boss looking to guide his team to a second win in a row against France after their narrow 16-15 victory last year at Kingston Park.

To take on their hosts in Terrasson-Lavilledieu, Fearn has selected a squad with plenty of talent. Two-time BUCS Super Rugby champion Josh Barton is recalled for a second year, along with Exeter University teammates including Niall Armstrong, Kofi Barton-Byfield and Archie Owlett.

Loughborough University’s Charlie Titcombe is back in the squad too, the fly-half a beaten finalist just weeks ago but integral to last year’s victory for England Students. Three more Loughborough players - who won the league in 2022-23 -were also picked in the 23-man squad while there are representatives from Bath University, Durham University, Cardiff Met, Hartpury University, Leeds Beckett and Newcastle present.

It has been something of a fairytale journey to representing his country for Cherry, who for a time, thought he did not have a plane ticket booked in his name at all.

"It was a call," Cherry laughed. "It was the Thursday after the Leeds Beckett-Brunel game [in which the former maintained their BUCS Super Rugby spot]. I got a call from Andrew Kennedy [England Students’ team manager], it was made a lot worse by Ed Timpson, who is also in the squad.

"He got his call at 10:00 and sent me a text saying ‘I’m in’ and he was really happy. I text him back saying I was happy for him. I didn’t get anything. I went to work at 14:00, I hadn’t heard anything, so I resigned myself to not being in it.

"At about 18:00, I got an email from Andrew asking for my number. I sent my number and about five minutes later he called me to say I was in the team.

"First of all, I was relieved, secondly so happy and excited. I was like, ‘How come it took so long to get around to me? I know you were doing Ed’s this morning?!

"He said ‘I hate to tell you, but it is because I typed your phone number in wrong by one digit this morning and I haven’t been able to get hold of you all day’. I had obviously been bricking it all day thinking I hadn’t made it and it was because my number was typed in wrong.

"I came to uni with three goals when I was 18. I speak to my Dad about it occasionally. My three goals were to get Notts up to BSR, to get a contract with Nottingham Rugby [which Cherry did last year] and to get picked for England Students.

"That was the three big milestones for me and to finish my last year here playing for England Students, it will be the first time for me that I have represented my country which is a pretty awesome feeling. I am really excited. When I found out I was so happy."

Leaving Norwich School in 2019, Cherry had flirted with professional rugby on several occasions. At 14, the forward was involved with Leicester Tigers’ academy set-up, but as a "fat kid that played prop, I hated fitness", so ultimately opted to stop taking part.

Instead, Cherry’s rugby came with his school side where his teammates included the likes of Freddie Steward [Leicester and England], as well as Alfie [University of Bath] and Jake Garside [Northampton Saints].

Cherry even recalls a NatWest Cup game in which the side took on Rugby School, who themselves had some notable names in the form of Emeka Ilione [Leicester Tigers] and Ben Muncaster [Edinburgh Rugby].

A reprise with Leicester is what formed Cherry’s way to Nottingham. Now a back-row, that “fat kid” who hated fitness had instead matured into a bruising loose forward and clearly had impressed those at Oval Park in the process.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

Breaking his ankle against a Nottingham Rugby academy side, the two parties parted ways. Leicester’s former Head of Academy Jamie Taylor, who Cherry describes as one of his best coaches, then put in a good word at the University of Nottingham. An hour-long call with High-Performance Director Paul Westgate during his lunch break ultimately sealed the deal.

Studying history for his undergraduate degree, Cherry’s fresher season was cut short by the global pandemic after having broken into the first XV following a string of injuries.

"I think Covid, weirdly, was the best thing that could have happened for me," Cherry said. " was in the situation where after playing in the first team a lot in my first year because of injuries, I would have probably gone into my second year as the fifth or sixth choice back-row.

"I went home, had this really good off-season when I was sent this gym programme, went from a 90kg to 95kg openside to a more 105kg six or eight, and came back into third year with a lot more experience, a lot more maturity and ever since then it has been up and up."

It was just over a year ago that Nottingham bettered Northumbria for a spot in university rugby’s top level, their debut season starting with a win over Leeds Beckett.

Cherry has very much been at the heart of it all, the No.8 having aided Westgate in taking the East Midlands side to new horizons across his four years at the David Ross Sports Village.

In Cherry’s second Covid-disrupted year, the back-row was named Clubman of the Year and 12 months later, he was one of the team’s vice-captains.

With the club’s captain, Jamie Barden, having largely been away with the England Sevens set-up, Cherry would captain the club into BUCS Super Rugby.

"When I came, it was almost a joke that Nottingham could only finish third in [BUCS] North A because there was Newcastle and [Nottingham] Trent in the league who were both really good," Cherry said.

"Trent had only just come down from BSR, Newcastle wanted to go up to BSR and there was a really good [University of] Birmingham team that year with a guy called Sunni Jardine who was outrageously good.

"Over my three undergrad years, there was this transformation of culture and aspirations for the club from ‘we are going to be third in the league’ to ‘we could actually win this’.

"I would speak to Paul about this, and I am not going to take sole responsibility because it was a club effort, but Paul jokes with me that the club took on a bit of my personality in terms of the work ethic and the drive to be better and taking it more seriously and professionally.

"In my third year, we won North A, we won 17 games in a row, won the Cup, beat Northumbria to go up. This year it has taken another step up with getting eighth in BSR, beating Loughborough, beating Cardiff Met, beating Cardiff, four teams that have been in BSR forever, almost beating Loughborough in a play-off game if it wasn’t for a shitty last 15 or 20 minutes.

"I have put my entire life into that for the last four years. I was talking to my housemate last night. My aspirations out of school were to play in National 2, maybe National 1. I thought that was going to be my peak.

"Coming to uni and developing so much and getting that contract with Nottingham was like a dream come true for me. I didn’t think that was ever going to happen. This year has gotten even more mental with scouts coming down to the games from Prem clubs and coming up to Paul after games saying, ‘that No.8 you have got is pretty handy’."

At present, Cherry is assessing his options for next season. His current contract with Nottingham runs out at the end of June, his primary focus at this moment in time being his upcoming trip to France. A good performance perhaps could open more doors as clubs make their final arrangements for the next year's action.

Describing himself as a “nause”, Cherry has found himself obsessed with BUCS rugby for much of his university career. Last year as Nottingham were winning their place in BUCS Super Rugby, he believes he watched every live-streamed game and every highlights package that he could find.

"I think BSR peaked last year because so many boys stayed on for Masters’ to play because they missed their third year because of Covid and stayed on to play their fourth year," Cherry said.

"One thing I am personally hoping will happen because it will benefit me with the Premiership salary cap going down and you see players like Jackson Wray retiring, Billy Twelvetrees going to Ealing Trailfinders, I think you are not going to get as many Jimmy Gopperth’s anymore, who kick around in the Prem until they are like 40 taking big contracts because it is not viable.

"What I think people will start to do more of, like we have seen with Fred Davies and the Benz-Solomon twins at Bristol, and Ollie Leatherbarrow is off to Newcastle, Exeter [Chiefs] are using Will Becconsall, the Exeter Uni nine every week, it just makes more sense for the salary cap to find these 20, 21, and 22-year-olds who are going to cost your clubs less.

"And, if you can get value out of them in the Prem Cup and in the Prem games when your internationals are away, they are going to train twice as hard as those older boys, because they want to be there.”

BUCS Super Rugby’s growing impact is increasingly seen in the Gallagher Premiership, with Bristol Bears announcing in their academy intake for next season that Tom Gardner and Ollie Thraves had taken up ‘BUCS Super Rugby pathway deals’ with Pat Lam’s side.

Cherry’s university teammates, Rob Carmichael [Leicester Tigers and England U20] and Fred Ma’a [Gloucester Rugby] also have similar agreements where they marry their studies with time spent in a top-flight academy.

As the tides continue to shift in professional rugby as the industry adjusts to a number of factors, it is likely that more players from this class of university rugby graduates will sign for Premiership, United Rugby Championship and Championship teams in the weeks to come.

The University of Nottingham have announced its intention to add more funding to its rugby club, helping the side to go from one-hit wonders to established BUCS Super Rugby faces. It adds to this growing sense that university rugby is more than just a fad which has seen several players go on to excel at the elite level.

Even so, for Cherry, his focus is on his next job. Travelling to RAF Cosford at the weekend, the 22-year-old is going to be getting a crash course in aligning with his new teammates and preparing to play France on Saturday afternoon.

It will be a final appearance as a student, the last time pulling on a jersey while attached to the University of Nottingham.

"The best way for me to finish this year would be to hopefully start, and play a big role in an England Students win against France,” Cherry said.

"Darren tells me we have not beaten France in France for 20-odd years, so that is the goal;  to put in a big shift at camp and be a leader in that group and someone that is going to take people with me on game day and beat the French.

"There are some other things going on. We have got the end-of-season awards at the university club, the uni-wide sports awards. It would be great to pick up a thing or two there for the club.

"There are the BUCS awards coming up too, but from a playing sense, it is all about Saturday, all about putting in a shift for England Students and my fingers are crossed that goes well and we will see what happens next season."