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FEATURE Cassius Cleaves: England's viral sensation eyes U20 glory

Cassius Cleaves: England's viral sensation eyes U20 glory
11 months ago

Cassius Cleaves played his first competitive rugby match at prop. The lithe, 20-year-old winger, whose schoolboy highlights reel – a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, ankle-snapping escapades – has more than 114,000 views on YouTube, was “a pretty big boy” aged 11.

His Ghanaian mother would pile the jollof rice high on his plate growing up in Wimbledon so prop felt the obvious spot for the youngster, who’d only picked up a ball for the first time that same week. Did he get involved at scrum time? “I actually can’t remember! It was such a long time ago: it’s quite a vague memory…’

What Cleaves does recall is the first time he stepped someone. That was more like it. “It was a sevens tournament at my school, and I’d watched a load of Quade Cooper and Izzy Dagg videos that week. I’d been trying to copy their footwork at home, and thought, ‘I’m gonna go for it in the game.’ It worked out, and it was addictive. Very addictive. I still think about the move: Quade up against the All Blacks. He steps Cory Jane – shapes to goose and then goes back inside. I’m sure mine didn’t look as good as his, but it ended up working out.”

My mum would gas me every time when I was little, and had me right up to the age of thirteen or fourteen, which is pretty impressive.

‘Cleave’ by name, and cleaving by nature: the now-famous footwork came naturally, with foundations laid on the football pitch – “I was a winger, and always trying to get as many goals as possible. I don’t think I tracked back for defence once” – and the boards of a local stage school, where ballet and tap set in motion some of the twinkliest young toes in the game.

The searing top-end speed was also already in place, thanks to the same mother who provided those groaning platefuls at dinner time. Jacqui Cleaves had been a school sprinting sensation in Ghana, and would race her son around the parks of South West London when he wasn’t at the local athletics track.

“She’d gas me every time when I was little, and had me right up to the age of 13 or 14, which is pretty impressive.”

His best competitive event was the 300m, which has left him with an enviable staying power to pair with the explosiveness he’s been gifted since being picked up by Harlequins a decade ago. Acceleration was “the toughest bit” to work on, but the speed’s now fairly all-court, as he’s well aware.

“There were actually a lot of people quicker than me over 100m growing up.” He smiles. “Maybe not now.”

Cassius Cleaves
Cassius Cleaves was a schoolboy sensation. (Photo by Cassius Cleaves)

Back to that highlights reel, then, published by Raw Rugby in 2020. The kid who’d learned to turn opposition inside out from videos on the internet was suddenly being lauded and scrutinised himself. A viral sensation. English rugby’s latest wunderkind.

“It was quite odd, really. They contacted me asking for clips, so I sent them anything I thought was half good. I think it helped massively that it was during lockdown, so everyone was stuck at home on their laptops the whole time – but it was still pretty weird seeing how much came of it.”

Three-and-a-half minutes of fearless and fearsome attacking rugby from a 17-year-old who is simply quicker and stronger than anyone else around him. A whitewash-seeking missile; a juggernaut in a jersey. The top comment reads: “I smell greatness. He’s like a mix of Jason Robinson and Sinoti Sinoti.” Was that a smidge head-turning? “I try not to look at those too much. As great as those guys are, I very much want to be my own player.”

It’s been a character arc with accelerations as prolific as those of its protagonist.

There’ve also been times when I didn’t want to play. I really considered focusing on academics and going to university, but – eventually – I decided I couldn’t not give rugby a chance.

“I went from being at a local school that’s not famous for rugby, to being signed by Quins the same year I first picked up a ball. Then that video took off, right as I started representing England. But then there’ve also been times when I didn’t want to play. I really considered focusing on my academic career and going to university, but – eventually – I decided I couldn’t not give rugby a chance.”

The ascent has been compelling, but there have been the inevitable plateaus and hurdles, too. “Not everyone is Marcus Smith,” after all, and fellow Harlequins and England hotshot Lennox Anyanwu has been instrumental in helping Cleaves manage his own journey. The pair “talk every hour of every day”. The winger pauses.“To be honest, that’s probably way too much. But we discuss patience a lot, because he was also someone surrounded by hype at age group level, and found not playing quite difficult. I’ve always been a fairly humble bloke, but it was so helpful to have him say it’s okay not to play every game in an U20s tournament, or to not have made my Premiership debut within the first two years. He’s kept me grounded so well; rugby’s very much a waiting game.”

This level-headedness has gone some way to tempering the pressure of becoming an online star at 17. “I used to overthink a lot. Every time I got the ball I needed to score, or create another highlight reel.” His U20s call-up came unexpectedly, midway through last year’s Six Nations, and his first involvement was a nervy dropped ball. “Yeah. Argh.” He puffs out his cheeks. “It’s funny, because I just don’t get nervous like that anymore. That fear factor’s gone. I take my time, and I know everything’s a stepping stone: one carry can lead to a try later on.”

Harlequins v Saracens - Premiership Rugby Cup
Cleaves featured for Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby Cup. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Age-grade rugby has a tendency to sparkle – there seems to be a universal licence to play – which suits an instinctive, turbo-charged back down to the ground – especially one who’s honed his craft at the Harlequins school of great entertainers.

“The brands are really similar. At Quins, we like to fizz the ball about, go quickly as much as we can, and play with smiles on our faces. Alan [Dickens – England’s recently-departed U20s coach] gave me full permission to go and get the ball, and, once I had it, do what I could, and what I wanted. Everyone had that freedom. It’s just so much fun.”

Cleaves enjoyed a win against Wales on debut in 2022, before losses against Ireland and France. This season? A repeat of those last two: a drubbing at The Rec by the Baby Bleus, before defeat on the road in Cork. England open their World Championship account in South Africa against the Six Nations grand slammers on Saturday.

“France and Ireland were just a different level this year: like nothing I’ve ever played against before. That said, we gave them a bit too much respect, and I think we’d all openly admit that. Everyone wants to put out a performance against England, which we need to thrive on. It was a mistake, and definitely won’t happen again. It makes Ireland first up at the World Championship one we’re really looking forward to getting after. We’ll be absolutely firing.”

I’m going to expose him a bit here: our favourite thing is watching little soppy movies. Last camp, we did all the Twilights in two days.

Even by Cleaves’ supremely dynamic standards, the Red Rose will need to hit the ground running against the all-conquering Irish, before turning their attention to Fiji and Australia.

“I don’t know anything about either team. I’m happier that way: now I can go in with full confidence that we can win. There’s no fear there around certain players or my opposite man. If they’re unreal, they’re unreal – so be it. They might deserve all the respect in the world, but I won’t know to give it to them. I’m quite an instinctive player; that suits me.’

Cleaves will room with best pal, Rekeiti Ma’asi-White, for the next four weeks. They’ve only started alongside each other once in England colours, but their off-field relationship is the result of hours of investment. They listen to music together, of course – “that’s essential” – and the Sale centre brings his PlayStation, but – “I’m going to expose him a bit here: our favourite thing is watching little soppy movies. Last camp, we did all the Twilights in two days. The camp before, it was all the Step Ups.’ Channing Tatum in the rain? “So good. So good. All the Rush Hours, too. We get through lot of movies…”

England U20 v Wales U20: Under-20 Six Nations
The flying Cleaves showed his speed and explosiveness against Wales in the U20 Six Nations. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

Besides demolishing another boxset or two, what would be a successful trip to Cape Town?

“The gold standard is winning the whole thing, of course, but I think rugby needs more characters – so I’ll avoid the media handbook here. The bare minimum is to get out of the pool. It’s a tough one, we know that, and we want to enjoy ourselves out there, but I won’t be happy if we’re not in the knockouts. We’ve got such a good squad, and such a tight-knit group, we have the potential to do something memorable.”

What a memory that would be, a decade on from leaving his first bamboozled opponent clutching at thin air. He heads home to, you suspect, a heaped plate of Ghanaian goodness. A first World Championship for one of England’s brightest young things. Cassius Cleaves has never been short on steps – they’re his trademark, after all – and this next one’s a biggie.


1 Comment
Antony 362 days ago

Great - insightful and personal - off to YouTube to find that highlights reel, and more...

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