Tom Hitchcock Interview: 'BUCS Super Rugby and my time at university is the next best thing outside of being a professional'

Tom Hitchcock played for Exeter in the Premiership Cup last season - now he will start against the Chiefs on Sunday
©Pinnacle for London Irish

Tom Hitchcock is set for a "surreal" experience on Sunday afternoon.

Not just because he will start for London Irish in the Premiership Rugby Cup final, but also because he will do so against one or two familiar faces.

The Exiles take on Exeter Chiefs for the first piece of silverware of the season and it will be a case of friends reunited for Hitchcock.

Just under 12 months ago, the 23-year-old scored a brilliant try for the University of Exeter to help the 'Green and Whites' clinch the BUCS Super Rugby title, the biggest honour in the student game.

And opposite him this weekend will be the likes of Dan John who played alongside Hitchcock in last season's BSR success but is now part of the Chiefs squad. 

To add to the sense of occasion, during his time at the university, Hitchcock was able to represent the Chiefs in the Premiership Rugby Cup with Rob Baxter handing him his debut against Worcester Warriors in March 2022.

Whichever way you look at it, it will be a special afternoon for Hitchcock and his maiden season as a full-time professional may include lifting a trophy at the expense of his former club.

"I have definitely got my eye on this weekend," Hitchcock told TRU. "There will be lots of familiar faces, I'm sure. Guys like Dan [John] as well as Jacob Morris and Fin Richardson. They were at Exeter Uni and signed for the Chiefs and that relationship between the club and the university is why you see those links.

"I have had small chat with Fin about the game but yeah, it is more just looking forward to Sunday and potentially seeing them.

"I think it will be a bit of, perhaps, added motivation. It is a final so I am very motivated anyway but it definitely will have that personal edge. I wasn't quite able to get a contract with Exeter but I think it might have a bit of added spice to it so I am looking forward to it!"

Instead of remaining in Devon, Hitchcock's career path saw him head to the capital and the move to Irish first entered his thoughts in February last year following a Zoom call with the club.

But the dynamic centre believes turning his dream of becoming a professional rugby player into a reality was heavily influenced by his time at the University of Exeter and his development within BUCS Super Rugby.

When it comes to student sport, the top tier of university rugby continues to be the crown jewel and Exeter have consistently been one of the leading sides in the competition.

Sam Skinner (Glasgow Warriors) and Tom Lawday (Harlequins) are two of the established names to have emerged from the pitches at Topsham [Exeter Uni's home ground] to reach the highest of heights, while current Chief and Wales international Dafydd Jenkins shared the same university dressing room as Hitchcock last season.

"Your university days are some of the best of your life," Hitchcock said. "I definitely really enjoyed it and last year was obviously special. Getting to play with my best mates and achieve what we achieved was awesome.

"The mindset and professionalism of everyone in the league, at Exeter University was so good. I think the league and my time with Exeter is the next best thing just outside of professional rugby. The coaches, the players, everyone is just so passionate about the student game.

"It is just so nice to see some of the boys from last year doing well too. I shared some pretty special memories with them last season so it is great to see them pushing on. Dafydd, I mean he is definitely one to watch for the future and now obviously! He is doing so well at such a young age."

It is clear that despite Hitchcock now nailing his colours to the London Irish mast, his feelings for the University of Exeter remain prominent: "I watched the live-stream on Wednesday night," he added, as Exeter were just pipped to the BUCS Super Rugby league title by Loughborough University.

"Unfortunately, the boys couldn't lift the league trophy but as I alluded to before, the standard of BUCS Rugby every week tests you physically and mentally. I think it was probably the same last year as it was this year. Every game is really tough and that transition from uni into an environment like this at London Irish is a good one."

Similarly to Hitchcock, fellow Exile Tom Pearson made the grade at Cardiff Met before moving to Brentford and the back-rower has lit up the Gallagher Premiership this term while Durham University alumni, Josh Basham, is also set to start in Sunday's final: "Me and Tom are quite good friends! said Hitchcock. "Always having a bit of chat about BUCS Super Rugby and those Cardiff Met and Exeter days!

"We are seeing and talking about it [the university rugby pathway] more and more. It is definitely becoming a popular route to go down. I was at the Saracens academy when I was 18 and I wasn't quite ready for professional sport at that time, but going to uni and developing your skills and your size allows boys to mature physically and improve skills-wise as well."

Now the time has come for Hitchcock to appear in his second final in just under a year, albeit on a very different stage.

The emerging talent has been determined to take any opportunities which have come his way. He has only played in the Premiership Rugby Cup this term - in the opening three rounds of the competition as well as against Bath in the last eight - but Director of Rugby Declan Kidney has handed Hitchcock a start in the final.

"Irish definitely do back their younger players and the Premiership Rugby Cup gives you those chances" Hitchcock explained. "Just from seeing the competition over the years, the likes of Will Joseph, [Henry] Arundell, they've really stamped their mark on it and to be in the mix with them now is really good

"When you see that, and the fact that I am here also, it definitely gives you the belief that you can really push on and try and achieve your full potential."

With the aforementioned Arundell featuring for England against Ireland in Dublin this weekend - and teammate Ollie Hassell-Collins making his senior international debut earlier in the Six Nations - the environment at London Irish seems like the perfect fit if Hitchcock is to hit the heights he is targeting.

Collectively, it is set to be a big two weeks for the Exiles. Following Sunday's cup final, they are back at the Gtech Community Stadium on March 25th for their St Patrick's Party fixture against Northampton Saints as they look to continue their surge towards the play-offs in the Gallagher Premiership.

But first, they will want to go one better than they did last year.

Back in May - at the same venue - Irish lost the Premiership Rugby Cup final to Worcester after a nail-biting contest. The game finished 25-25 but the Warriors were crowned champions due to having scored more tries than the Exiles during the match.

"Obviously, I wasn't here last year but a lot of the boys played in that final so it is definitely some motivation and some keenness to make amends for last season," added Hitchcock.

The youngster will be determined to help his new teammates achieve glory this time around and after concluding his university days with a winners medal around his neck, Hitchcock will be hoping to experience the same feeling on Sunday...just in a different shade of green and white.