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Barnard Castle: English rugby nursery's latest batch of brothers

By Chris Jones
Guy Pepper warms up during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on May 28, 2024 in Bagshot, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The rugby masters at Barnard Castle have an unerring ability to recognise outstanding talent, particularly in sets of brothers with Guy and Max Pepper the latest to grab the headlines from a school that has produced England and British and Irish stars and a Rugby World Cup referee.

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Flanker Guy, 21, has already been picked by England A and was included in Steve Borthwick’s initial training squad for this summer’s tests while Durham University student Max, 23, is in the GB Sevens squad in Croatia this weekend building up to the Olympics and has been named the BUCS  Super Rugby Player of the Season. A scrum half or wing, Max has just signed for Newcastle Falcons – the club Guy is leaving to join Bath.

The Peppers have joined Rory and Tony Underwood, Mathew and Alex Tait and Karl and Lee Dickson in breaking into top class rugby together from a County Durham school that is enhancing its already impressive record for producing ‘family’ rugby talent.

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Martin Anayi, CEO of the URC, speak about the ‘contingency plans’ in place because the Bulls are unable to host a potential Final at Loftus Versfeld

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Martin Anayi, CEO of the URC, speak about the ‘contingency plans’ in place because the Bulls are unable to host a potential Final at Loftus Versfeld

One teacher who is understandably proud of Guy and Max is Martin Pepper, their father, who is second master at Barnard Castle and a former hooker/flanker with England B and Harlequins. Martin was one of the first “project” players in England having been a flanker for England Students but switched to hooker while at Quins following a suggestion by Dick Greenwood, then England head coach and father of Will, the World Cup winning centre.

England and Lions outside half Rob Andrew was also a pupil at ‘Barney ‘ -as its pupils refer to the school – at the same time as the Underwoods and the current head of rugby Lee Dickson is a former England scrum half and a Premiership title winner with Northampton in 2014. With this kind of pedigree their ability to nurture rugby talent at the school is impressive and shows no signs of abating.

Pepper, whose nephew Oisín Pepper is a wing in the Munster U20s, told RugbyPass: “Max and Guy are different lads and being the oldest, Max was always his own person and it was one of prep school teachers who really got him playing. Guy always wanted to get out there in the wind and rain, hitting a tackle bag and their sister loves her hockey. Both boys showed the passion and ability and they got stuck into sport.

“In Year 11, Guy came in and played up in the last three games of the season and that is the only time they have played together even though they were also at Durham University at the same time. Guy has had a couple of injuries and a foot ligament injury which was quite unusual. This season at Newcastle he has been involved in around 20 games and showed he is maturing and getting that toughness you need and has only just turned 21-years-old.

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Guy Pepper
Newcastle Falcons’ Guy Pepper during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Exeter Chiefs and Newcastle Falcons at Sandy Park on March 23, 2024 in Exeter, England.(Photo by Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“Hopefully, that is the back end of his injuries and his body has been through the mill a bit with the tackles he had to make at Falcons and driving mauls. He has put himself up there to be reckoned with. One of his best traits is that he doesn’t give up lost causes and is a typical gatherer and chaser – hunting the ball. I don’t think that is coachable – that is just his mindset.

“I wouldn’t want that to be coached out of him and while there is a lot of stuff written about Guy defensively, which is admirable, hopefully will see him in a more attacking role as he progresses in his career – growing up he played 10 and 12 attacking with ball in hand.

“Our daughter Eve is at university in Cardiff and so we are used to that journey and so it will be a little further to get to Bath.”

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While Guy is preparing to join the Bath squad and battle it out for game time with England’s Sam Underhill and Scotland’s Josh Bayliss, his older brother has his own packed schedule with GB sevens and pre-season with Newcastle Falcons.

His father explained: “After school Max had taken a year out and was sitting in Beijing airport when Covid hit and was heading out to New Zealand and the country went into lockdown. He managed to get about a dozen games after lockdown in Christchurch and then chose to come home. Max has always shown an interest in sevens and got involved in the Shoguns and has enjoyed that circuit and got into the GB squad, then picked up a shoulder injury but is back and has headed out to Croatia with GB sevens this weekend.

“Max has had a phenomenal season being named BUCS Player of the Season and has shown a lot of toughness and resilience to get a contract with Falcons.”

Max Pepper
Max Pepper of Newcastle Falcons scores on debut during the Premiership Cup match between Newcastle Falcons and Caldy at Kingston Park, Newcastle on Sunday 8th October 2023. (Photo by Chris Lishman/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Pepper’s own career spanned the end of the amateur game and the start if professional rugby and saw him identified as a potential hooker for England after he played at flanker for England Students. The move came at a time when England preferred tall timber in the back row like Bath’s Ben Clarke and Northampton’s Tim Rodber but it was left to the Quins coaches to help the transition which he found tough.

He explained: “I was contacted by the RFU and having 6ft 3ins players at No7 was something England were choosing and players like myself were seen as too small. I didn’t’ feel I wasn’t going to get anymore representative honours unless I made that change and in my third year at Quins I made the change in 1995. During that year’s World Cup in South Africa I gave up my teaching job in Staines and travelled out to Durban to learn the trade playing for a local club.

“I then came back ready to play hooker and Dick Best (Lions and England) was the Quins coach and I did attend a coaching session put on by the RFU but I just got on and played. I was in my late 20s and maybe it was too late to make that change and Gareth Adams at Bath was persuaded to do it as well and was in a similar boat. The line out throwing without lifting was different and you had eagle-eyed coaches like Dick telling you by how much you missed the jumper.

“I left London in1999 and got a job here at Barney and have remained and the rest is history. We have a group of players in the Falcons academy and for a small school we punch above our weight and that is testament to Lee (Dickson) who heads our rugby staff and leads the way. When we got to Twickenham in the schools finals in 2003 Lee was the captain. Lee has three boys at the school and his eldest is a scrum half but I think he is a 10!”

The Barnard Castle rugby playing brothers:
Guy Pepper (England A, Newcastle, Bath) Max Pepper (BUCS Player of the Season, GB Sevens, Newcastle)
Rory and Tony Underwood (England and Lions wings)
Karl and Lee Dickson ( Ex-Harlequins and World Cup referee – England scrum half, Premiership winner with Northampton)
Mathew and Alex Tait ( Leicester and England international –  Newcastle back)

Other pupils:
Rob Andrew (Lions and England) was a class mate of Rory Underwood at the school.
Tim Visser (Scotland and Harlequins wing)
Ed Williamson (Newcastle)
Rory Clegg (Harlequins and Glasgow Warriors)
Alex Gray (GB Sevens, Atlanta Falcons, Bath)
Ross Batty (Bath)
Freddie Lockwood ( current Newcastle flanker)

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M
Mzilikazi 2 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Very good article, Nic, and I find agreement with what you write virtually 100%. I think this two mach series has increasingly become one which will be very difficult for Ireland to win. After the first game of the last 6N, I would have been very full of confidence taking on the Boks in SA. France beaten by a big margin in France, it looked as if Ireland had emerged in fine form from the World Cup, despite the very narrow loss to the AB’s. But after that game, a slide began, ending with the defeat to England. Ireland were very fortunate to win this years 6N ! And as you so fully expose, this has not been a good season for Leinster, or indeed, in my view, for any Irish province. The Leinster loos to the Bulls, and then Munster letting a glorious chance slip to the Glasgow Warriors down at Thomond. Man, that one will really hurt. And both Connacht and Ulster have at times looked very poor this seaso, bith heavily beaten on occassion. The loss of both Gibson Park and Keenan are huge blows, especially Gibson Park. And there is really only one clear class 10 in the touring party, Jack Crowley, and he is still a very young player learning his trade. If he goes down, heaven help Ireland. And in my view, Ireland do not have a good scrummaging front row, SA do, and in great depth too. But despite all this doom and gloom, I always believe my team can win. Not that they will win, just can ! Ireland will still field what is the best and most talented team overall that I have seen in my lifetime. But the coaching group will really have to step up, no awful decisions like the one made against the AB’s in the QF….keeping the totally spent and poorly performing(on the day) Sexton on for the full 80mins, leaving Crowley on the sidelines. Ireland should never have lost that game !

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S
Shaylen 5 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Ireland have all the tools required to hurt SA. They develop quick ball, hold onto the ball for long periods, stretch the game when its on, have powerful mobile forwards, a good kicking game and they can hold their own in the scrum. They also can force turnovers regularly and in general do well at the breakdown. When Munster, the Ospreys and Glasgow all won games in SA this year against the Bulls and Stormers they did just that and won. It is also the reason why Ireland won the game at the world cup last year. The problem for Ireland is that SA have all the tools required to hurt them as well and hurt them a great deal more than England did in the Six Nations. They are physical and powerful at the set piece, they rush up and counter the Irish attacking system and they can really attack the breakdown and slow your ball down. Their counterattacking threat is also a big weapon and they score many tries from turnover turning defence into offence in a second. Toulouse and the Bulls nailed Leinster in this way and Glasgow did the same thing to Munster. So the series will be really interesting because both sides are so good at countering each other. Interested to see what kind of surprises Tony Brown springs and how the SA game develops. Feel like SA have more potential to surprise Ireland but then a new coaching set up as well as the fact that Japanese and foreign based players tend to take about 5 to 6 weeks to get up to speed might work in Irelands favour. SA have shipped at least one game in 4 of the last 5 June/July test windows going back to 2018 for this exact reason.

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