The honour of representing England Students is not lost on some of the brightest talents in the country

England Students face France Universities at Coventry's Butts Park Arena aiming for a third straight win

University rugby continues to hit new peaks and for 23 players on Saturday, they will have the opportunity to receive the highest honour in the student game when they represent England Students against France Universities at Coventry Rugby Club.

The England Students programme has been going since the 1970s, however, in recent years, it has gone from strength to strength.

The annual fixture between the English and French students aims to highlight some of the brightest talents either side of the Channel.

Notable names that have represented England Students in the past include Will Greenwood and Lawrance Dallaglio and, more recently, Bristol’s Fitz Harding and Harlequins' Luke Northmore.

This weekend, the latter is set to feature in an Investec Champions Cup semi-final away at Toulouse and it is on French soil where England Students triumphed almost 12 months ago.

They beat France on their own patch for the first time in 17 years - a 25-21 victory - and England will be looking to make it three wins in a row in the academic version of ‘Le Crunch’ at Butts Park Arena.

Leading the side out on Saturday is Lucas Dorrell, who this season guided Exeter University to its first BUCS Super Rugby league title since 2019.

"Coming into a group like this with so many quality players, it’s a massive privilege to lead the boys out," Dorell tells TRU. "I hope I can do my part and put my best foot forward, leading by example to a good win with the team."

Head Coach Darren Fearn named his 23-man squad last week and they have been training in the excellent facilities at RAF Cosford ahead of the match on Saturday.

Hartpury fly-half Tommy Matthews epitomises the calibre of player that the England Students programme and the university pathway provides.

Matthews has represented England at Under-20s level as well as Hartpury in both BUCS and the Championship.

“We’re hungry to win again after winning in France last year, and we want to make sure we do it on home soil as well," he says.

"Training has been really great. Getting to know one another and how our team plays is great. We were lucky enough on Wednesday to have a proper session against the RAF first team, running that at full intensity, which was really great preparation.”

The squad is made up of some of the biggest names in BUCS Super Rugby but a couple of the players involved aren’t in the top league.

Utility forward Jay Ecclesfield is one of those players. Studying at Nottingham Trent University, he plays in the second tier of the student game but has made over 13 appearances for Nottingham Rugby through the club's unique pathway with the university. He earned his first Championship start against London Scottish two weeks ago.

“It’s an interesting situation," he says. "A lot of the boys who play in BUCS Super Rugby all know each other, playing each other week in and week out, whereas me and the other two Newcastle boys don’t get that opportunity. It’s been class to be able to have this opportunity with England Students, being in the squad and mixing with the high standards of players we’ve got here.

“We only get a week in camp and then one Test match at the weekend. You’ve got to hit the ground running, but we’re already starting to really gel and become great teammates, which will be vital come game time.”

Another player not playing in BUCS Super Rugby but benefiting from the England Students pathway is Ollie Fletcher. Studying and playing for Newcastle University, he is an emerging talent who profits from his university’s collaboration with professional club Newcastle Falcons.

The hooker has represented the Premiership side this term - as well as Darlington Mowden Park in National One  - and he is now relishing the opportunity with England Students.

“It’s been awesome; we’ve got a great bunch of lads here and have come together really quickly," Fletcher says. Here in the RAF camp, when you’re sleeping in bunk beds, you tend to get to know people quite quickly!”

“We’ve got high ambitions in this group. Early on in the week, we painted the picture of what representing England Students means to us, and we’re ready to go for Saturday.

“The opportunity to play rugby wearing an England badge is one you can never turn down. It’s been awesome and a privilege to come and play rugby with the best university players in the country.”