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Undergraduate Max Pepper

Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity undergraduate Max Pepper was part of the 23-player squad selected to face France Universities at Coventry Rugby Club on Saturday 4 May.

While Max usually plays as scrum-half, this match, also known as ‘Le Crunch’, saw him in the starting line-up as left wing, showing his versatility on the pitch. A nail-biting game ultimately resulted in a narrow defeat for the team (43-48).

We spoke to Max in the wake of the match to find out more about his passion for the sport.

1. Tell us about yourself

I grew up not too far from Durham City, in Barnard Castle, and that’s where I went to school. I got involved with the Newcastle Falcons rugby academy at about 14 after playing county rugby.

When I finished school, I went to New Zealand to play rugby there for a year. It was a pretty cool experience! The way the New Zealand system works is pretty different to the UK. Professional players will get involved with amateur clubs, so you get to train with them throughout the pre-season period.

I came back and progressed to Durham University, continuing to play rugby, and being selected for the England Students squad.

2. How did you first become involved with rugby?

Rugby has always been massive in my family - my younger brother plays professionally and my Dad did too. I’m hoping to take that route myself. I am waiting to see what will happen in the next few weeks. I was fortunate enough to make my Premiership debut last month, which was exciting. I’m hoping some opportunities may come off the back of that but I haven’t actually signed for any club at this point.

Rugby has always been a big part of my and my family’s life. Most weekends when I grew up were spent taking me and my brother to different places to play. I can’t remember not being involved with rugby. I am focused wholeheartedly on it and fully committed to developing my career in the sport. I’m giving it 100%.

3. What made you pick Durham as a university?

Durham is a well-established institution with a good reputation. That’s what attracted me initially. Then I considered the rugby programme. Durham is in BUCS (British Universities & Colleges Sport) Super Rugby, which is a very competitive league. It’s a great shop window for people aspiring to play professional rugby. It was a win-win for me. I’ll get a good degree, but I’ll also have opportunities to progress with my rugby and future career in the sport.

4. How has the University supported your rugby development?

The facilities at Maiden Castle are pretty special. It’s a pretty good set-up there and something athletes need for strength and conditioning, and physical fitness. You can’t really get much better.

The sports staff and coaches have been brilliant as well. Certain coaches have come in this year - Theo Smerdon joined Durham’s coaching team and I think he’s doing a great job. He’s really supported the team and applied what he’s learned from his professional rugby career to his role.

The University Rugby Club has really close links with Durham City Rugby Club and the people there are amazing too. The club chairs are brilliant, friendly and so supportive. It’s great to have them at home games.

In general, there’s a massive support network surrounding the club.

Shout-out also to our kitman Stu Darby, who has probably the least pleasant job of washing everyone’s kit! He’s a pretty decent guy and always brings a box of sweets to each game.

I’ve been able to have leadership experiences too - I was captain of the rugby Sevens last year and went away to Portugal to play in the Algarve Sevens, as well as Scotland, and around England.

Durham University 1st XV vs University of Exeter at the start of this season. Max Pepper centre right.

5. What are you hoping for after you graduate?

Rugby is a very competitive sport to get into, with a lot of supply and less demand, so I’m not being choosy! My involvement with Newcastle Falcons ended before I travelled to New Zealand. When I returned, I was invited to join their 1st XV team, which I’ve been in for the past year. I’m anticipating a conversation about what they might offer me in the next few weeks, but at the moment I’m keeping my options open.

I’ve had some involvement with GB Sevens, potentially going to Croatia and Germany with them in June, but that’s also to be confirmed. I’m on the long list for the 2024 Olympics too, but Team GB hasn’t qualified yet”!

6. How have you found balancing your studies with your rugby commitments?

I’ve found if you’re not disciplined you may struggle and it really depends how far you want to take it. I’ve really pushed myself this year to get the best opportunities, like with England Students. I’ve had quite limited free time and I’ve had to be pretty proactive with how I’ve approached my work. You cut your social life down to suit (not too many beers this year for me!) and discipline is key.

I’ve also used the bus to do work on. We’re one of the few teams in North East England, and most of our competitors are in Wales or the South West of England, so the travelling is massive.

I remember one journey particularly – I was coming back from Cardiff. The bus broke down south of Birmingham and we didn’t get back to Durham until 6.30am on Thursday morning, and then I had an exam at 9am that same morning. That was pretty intense. I actually did quite well in the exam, but it wasn’t the most pleasant experience!

Balancing things isn’t impossible – I know people who have done more demanding courses than me, who have managed their studies and their sporting commitments successfully – but discipline is key and you have to be prepared to work when others are enjoying themselves.

I’m fortunate in that my course (Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity) sits pretty nicely alongside my rugby. Sport and Exercise Sciences is a really good department and they’re very understanding of my sporting commitments. The new head of department, Mark Stoutenberg, who is my dissertation supervisor too, has even come to a couple of games to watch me play. I enjoy the course too, so it’s working really well.

My college, Collingwood, has been supportive too. The Principal, Joe Elliott, dropped me an email straight after I got selected. It’s a pretty cool College, the facilities are pretty good and beat most other colleges I’d say! I really enjoyed my first year living there and I’m glad I was there.

7. How does your family inspire you to play rugby?

My Dad played for Harlequins FC, which is quite a big name in the rugby world. He also played for Nottingham and Bedford. We don’t ask him too much about it, because he goes on a bit!

My brother, Guy, who is actually studying in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences like me, is currently at Newcastle Falcons and has just signed for Bath next year.

My Dad has been massively influential for both my brother and I. I play a different position (scrum-half), but him and my brother play the same position (flanker). He’s the first person I’d go to for feedback. He’ll happily tell me something I’m doing right or not, or need to change mid-game. The amount of hours he has done driving us around the country, watching our games and giving us feedback has been huge. His support has helped me and my brother develop our game massively.

And it’s so much more than what you do on the field. It’s about how you manage relationships with coaches, act in the changing rooms, approach things, write messages and more. My Mum’s similarly supportive. While she’s not a rugby player, she’s done more than her fair share of giving us lifts and sorting us out.


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