Playing in National Two West to then starting at scrum-half against La Rochelle in the Champions Cup semi-finals a month later isn’t the most common debut season for any player, except if you are Exeter Chiefs scrum-half Will Becconsall.
Following a defeat to Bath at the Rec back in March, an infuriated Rob Baxter vowed to shuffle the team around for the Chiefs' European Round of 16 game against Montpellier. Becconsall, along with Tommy Wyatt and Tom Cairns, were the young guns trusted to take down the French giants at Sandy Park.
"The week of the Bath game, I was playing for the university’s Saturday team and in that game unfortunately Sam Maunder got injured. I straight away got a call from Haydn Thomas [Exeter Chiefs coach] saying; 'Hope you’re ready for next week, we need you for the Chiefs'", Becconsall tells TRU.
"I thought I might just be training, I didn’t know if he meant playing so when the team sheet came out and it was me and Tom Cairns both involved [from the university] at scrum-half it was pretty surreal."
Baxter’s gamble paid off, as the Chiefs scraped to an extra-time win against the French giants due to the most-tries-scored rule before emphatically taking down the then URC champions, the Stormers, to set up a semi-final against La Rochelle.
"Ever since then (2020) everyone outside of the club has been saying the castle has been crumbling.— Talking Rugby Union (@TalkRugbyUnion) April 11, 2023
"My biggest motivation is to make sure that is not the case."
This particular era at Exeter could be punctuated with more silverware...https://t.co/zcfmCGgaCG pic.twitter.com/ov594Phorx
Despite being thrown into the deep end pretty quickly against some of the best players in the world, Becconsall relished both the challenge and the atmosphere.
"I was definitely a bit starstruck with both those games because my opposite number for Montpellier was [Cobus] Reinach and [Grant] Williams for the Stormers, who obviously are now World Cup winners with South Africa," said the Cornish scrum-half.
"I thought I’ve got to try and get into their heads or something! But we’ve got a great defence coach who helped me out quite a lot and made it easier to defend well against their speed and get all over them at the scrums. It was really good fun."
Despite falling short against La Rochelle in the semis, the 20-year-old named that weekend as one of his favourite moments in his short career for the Chiefs so far.
"The atmosphere was pretty surreal. Driving through the streets of Bordeaux and we’re probably still 10 minutes from the actual stadium, there was French fans lining the streets chanting at the bus. It was a different level.
"We got there a day before and had a little look at the stadium and the French security were putting yellow flags out everywhere ready for the game. You could see a little section where there were a few Chiefs flags, so we knew we were outnumbered and had to stick together."
Playing against the European Champions is a test like no other, but Becconsall believes his time playing rugby in Devon for the university team has helped him immensely.
"I don’t think there’s much difference between BUCS and the Premiership," said Becconsall. "Obviously everyone’s a bit more physical and the pace is a little bit quicker in the Prem, but with the skills they’ve got in BUCS Super Rugby, there’s not a massive difference.
"I think the top BUCS teams this year could definitely give it a good go against some of the Championship teams for sure."
Exeter University’s relationship with Exeter Chiefs has always been an impressive one, and especially so in recent years. Welsh internationals Christ Tshiunza and Dafydd Jenkins are two of the more successful players to benefit from the link between university and club, and even in the Chiefs' last matchday squad against Sale Sharks, there were five current and former students.
"The uni and the Chiefs have a great connection,” says Becconsall. "There are so many coaches that help out, especially Haydn Thomas who helps with Uni training on a Monday night and he’ll come to every game.
"The pitch at Topsham is obviously also very close to the Chiefs stadium so the coaches are always there to watch the boys in that set-up. Gareth Elliott, the Uni Director of Rugby, also came from Chiefs and the structure of play between the two is all very linked, so they can keep everyone progressing in both environments."
After two consecutive BUCS Super Rugby Championship titles, the pathway is once again proving a success this year. Exeter University have won five out of five with their most recent victory coming in front of a packed out crowd at Sandy Park against Durham.
Despite only playing one game at Sandy Park for the university, Becconsall understands the impact these fixtures can have on aspiring players.
"The noise that you get from the crowd is another level, to be honest. There is only one stand filled but all of the crowd has probably had a few beers and they are shouting and screaming their heads off so the pressure isn’t that different despite the extra 10,000 at Chiefs games. It’s a little bit more noisy at the Chiefs games but it is very, very similar."
The Exeter Chiefs squad is a significantly younger one this year, and unsurprisingly features a lot of university alumni or current students. They have already had some emphatic home wins against both of last season’s finalists [Saracens and Sale] and Becconsall, despite missing out on the last month of action due to shoulder rehab, is both excited and encouraged by his team’s performances.
"I think for everyone at the minute it is a building season, but I don’t think we are going to take away from the fact that we’re still out there to win. It is the next chapter coming through, but the boys are still hungry to win and we want to be high up the table at the end of the season."
It has been a whirlwind rise to the top of professional rugby for Becconsall, and he will no doubt continue to make his mark in a successful Chiefs side this season. Whilst his student rugby days may be behind him, the young gun still shows up to as many games as he can and will be hoping for another victorious campaign for the Exeter University squad.
It will be a tough task to beat the Devonian side too, with Durham University the latest side to fall short in a 24-15 defeat. Elsewhere in BUCS Super Rugby last week, Nottingham University got their first win of the campaign, with a high-scoring 43-39 victory over Cardiff Met University.
The University of Bath got a second consecutive win (38-21) against Hartpury whilst Loughborough moved up to second in the table with an emphatic 39-19 away triumph at Leeds Beckett University. Swansea University rounded off last week’s fixtures with an impressive 31-17 victory away to Cardiff University in another exciting all-Welsh clash.
In the Women’s National League, Exeter University completed the double over Durham University in what can only be described as a demolition of the northern side, with the game finishing 75-0 to the hosts.
Cardiff Met University continued their wonderful form with a 25-16 win over Loughborough University to extend their lead at the top of the table. Elsewhere, Hartpury University travelled home from Cardiff University with five points and a 50-11 victory.
Women's National League: Edinburgh vs Exeter (3pm), Loughborough vs Cardiff (4pm), Hartpury vs Cardiff Met (5:30pm)