Max Pepper Exclusive: ‘Uni rugby puts players in the shop window’

England Students' Max Pepper in BUCS Super Rugby action for Durham University
©BUCS Sport

Two weeks shy of making his Gallagher Premiership debut for Newcastle Falcons Max Pepper will be representing England Students.

Older brother of fellow Falcon and England A forward, Guy, the 22-year-old will be capping off a fine season in which he has wowed for Durham University in BUCS Super Rugby and made his professional club debut.

After a week spent with new teammates at RAF Cosford in Shropshire, Pepper is looking forward to getting out on pitch in an international rugby match.

“It is a pretty exciting opportunity for me,” Pepper said. “Just to have a crack and something I wanted to do this season. 

“It should be good. I am really excited for it. 

“Hopefully I make the most of it and have a good game on Saturday. 

“We will take it from there really. It has been a good season and this tops that off.”

While Pepper has principally played at scrum-half this season, this weekend he is starting on the wing for England.

Playing out wide in his debut Durham season, the 22-year-old will be bringing his well-rounded game honed playing sevens internationally for Shogun Rugby and at Hollow Drift.

At the end of a week getting his players up to speed Students’ head coach Darren Fearn believes that Pepper’s skillset has made him invaluable to the French challenge. 

“He has been brilliant,” Fearn said. “He has been a serious rugby player for a long time. I think that is something that probably gets missed with him. 

“He is a very good sevens player, very good on the ball. He makes things happen.

“We have named him on the wing, even though he has played in the Premiership as a nine. 

“That shows he is a very serious player. The way rugby is at the moment, he would be an asset to clubs because of his attributes. 

“If you look at how serious coaches coach, and the way rugby is played, they want serious players.

“He is a good place, he is going to showcase himself and do his best for the team. I am sure he will.”

Getting in the shop window

Pepper’s path to representing England and Newcastle Falcons this season has been one with plenty of twists and turns. 

While his younger brother went straight from Barnard Castle School to Newcastle’s senior academy and into the first team at Kingston Park, Pepper has had to wait for his opportunities.

After being cut from the Newcastle academy at 18, the livewire spent time in New Zealand, turn out for National 1 club Darlington Mowden Park and travel the globe playing invitational sevens for Shogun Rugby before starting his sport, exercise and physical activity degree at Durham.

In this time a glimpse of professional rugby presented itself.

After consistent performances playing sevens, Pepper was picked up by GB Rugby Sevens in the wake of Tokyo 2020 before a broken collarbone playing international sevens on hold.

“I did have that conversation with myself a few times, asking ‘why are you doing this?’,” Pepper said. 

“I just think you never know what is going to happen and what opportunities are going to come your way. 

“You roll with the punches a little bit. I know you can’t dwell. That is what I am pretty good at. 

“I don’t like to dwell on stuff; it has happened, I give myself a moment to say it is shit and maybe have a sulk, but then it is next job. That’s how I’ve tried to crack on. 

“I find if you do something for enjoyment, opportunities present themselves rather than going looking for stuff.”

It is safe to say that Pepper’s attitude is now reaping its rewards.

After being named in the BUCS Super Rugby Team of the Season a year ago, Pepper earned his Newcastle reprieve.

Asked to join the club in their preseason preparations, the half-back impressed in their True North Fixture and scored a try on his debut for the club against Caldy in the Premiership Rugby Cup last October.

Getting his first league appearance in Falcons’ 85-14 defeat to Bristol Bears almost a fortnight ago, Pepper credits university rugby for much of his success.

Hoping to join a growing list of players stepping out from university into full-time rugby once his studies have concluded, the feeling around BUCS rugby has never been more positive.

With the likes of Ross Vintcent (Italy), Archie Griffin and Dafydd Jenkins (both Wales) all having graduated to Test match rugby in recent years, the attraction of gaining a degree alongside rugby commitments has grown significantly.

Playing in the competition is also an opportunity for players, like Pepper, outside of the academy system to shine, such as Fitz Harding who is now captain of Bristol Bears after starring in Durham colours.

“The way I would describe it; it is a shop window,” Pepper explained. 

“There is opportunity there. People are watching. 

“All the games are recorded, and each team has a number of lads already involved in a senior academy. 

“Senior acad managers are going to be watching each game. They are not necessarily watching it for you, but if you perform, they see that. 

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“You look at Durham, we have got boys with Bath, Leicester Tigers, Falcons, Northampton Saints, Harlequins and those are the five I can think of off the top of my head. 

“All of those boys, their games have to be put straight onto Hudl so their managers can watch. Instantly that puts you in the shop window. That is one massive advantage.

“If you want to crack on, the opportunity is there. That is the opportunity I think university rugby provides. 

“That opportunity for boys to showcase what they can do and hopefully get picked up. 

“Certainly, for boys like me, it is a second chance to show what you have got and see what opportunities are there.”

Family business

In a short space of time Pepper has become known as the older brother of Guy, who announced himself to the rugby world in Round 10 of the Premiership season with a competition equalling 34 tackles in Newcastle’s 37-19 loss to Saracens.

Quickly the openside flanker was being included in conversations about England selection and started in England A’s 91-5 victory over Portugal at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

At the end of April, it was confirmed that Guy was leaving Kingston Park to join Bath next season and potentially prevent the pair from playing for Steve Diamond’s team together.

Due to injury and unfortunate timing, the Pepper brothers have not played rugby together since their time in school.

Whether or not the pair will get the opportunity to do so in the final round of Premiership action in a weeks’ time is yet to be decided, it potentially being the last chance for them to do so.

In an interview with The Rugby Paper, Guy confessed to loving the chaos of rugby, something which his older brother is keen to take credit for.

“Obviously I taught him everything that he knows,” Pepper laughed. 

During his time with Durham, Pepper made 49 BUCS performances
©BUCS Sport

“When we were younger playing in the garden, I used to run rings around him, so he had to get used to that chaos. That would be why he said that. 

“We are different players. He likes putting his head where people don’t want to. I probably would be less inclined to do that.

“I like the opportunity to run, finding space, putting other people into space.”

Both the brothers are following their father, Martin, into elite rugby.

Representing Harlequins and England B, the former prop coached his two sons at Barnard Castle School.

Pepper will not even be the first in his family to represent Students when he steps onto the pitch for his international debut in Coventry.

“My dad played for Students,” Pepper said. “He might have even captained them back in the day. 

“His teamsheet is outside my bedroom at the moment and I can’t see it being accidental.

“Rugby has always been the main thing in our family. It is all we go on about. Rugby has been the big one. 

“The feedback we can get from dad is helpful, he is well qualified to give that, and he has been a great resource for us to use. 

“It is in our blood in a sense. Rugby has been a massive part of our lives. It certainly comes up at most dinner tables.”

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).