Some players race along the path to greatness. Posh rugby school, straight into a club academy, upwards to the first team, the international stage and the riches beyond. Dave Cherry was not one of them.
He was out of the Scottish rugby system at 18. He signed his first professional deal at 23. He didn’t play for a top-flight club until 27. He won his first Scotland cap aged 30. That came in the historic conquering of eerie, fan-less Twickenham in 2021, smashing Scotland’s 38-year hoodoo at the home of English rugby.
To get to that point, standing on halfway hoisting the Calcutta Cup aloft, Cherry fought like a beast. The hooker spent years in relative rugby backwaters grafting and searching and praying for opportunities. He studied at the University of Northumbria and played third-tier for Tynedale. He rang around Championship coaches and landed himself a gig at London Scottish. Three years later, he was off to Stade Niçois on the fourth rung of the French ladder. Niçois had a partnership arrangement with Scottish Rugby that meant a host of native talent headed for France. It took another year in Federale 2 to convince Richard Cockerill and Edinburgh to offer him a contract.
If I ever see young lads wasting an opportunity, I will always have a word. They’re in a fortunate position and they should make the most of it.
“I’ve had far more life experiences than half the guys in the pro game,” Cherry tells RugbyPass+. “In a way, I’m very thankful. It was actually my mother who pushed me to go to university and said, ‘you’re going because you never know when your last day of rugby might be’. I wasn’t going down there kicking and screaming, but I wasn’t far off it.
“After university, I got a list of coaches’ names and numbers and started calling and saying, ‘would you take me on?’ Eventually, with the help of an agent, I got down to Scottish. That was the start for me.
“If I ever see young lads wasting an opportunity, I will always have a word. They’re in a fortunate position and they should make the most of it. My path led me to the right place eventually, it was just a bit longer than some.”
Spending three of his prime seasons in the Championship was trying. It taught him how to handle himself, no doubt. And a hooker’s set-piece skills are sharpened by the demands of the competition. He loved the club, but by the end of his stint, feared his career had fallen stagnant.
“I’d say my last year at Scottish I hit a bit of a low. I thought, what am I doing, why am I still here? Why can’t I get anything better?
“I saw a sports psychologist, narrowed things down, worried about what I could control more. I got myself back on the rugby path I wanted to be on.
“You don’t have the niceties of loads of medical staff, facilities, in the Championship. What you see is what you get. More is demanded of you in training, there are smaller squads, it made you more resilient. Then you’re grateful when you come to a club that does have more facilities.
“It certainly shaped me as a player. It’s good for forwards, always known as a set-piece-based league.
“[Scotland forwards coach] John Dalziel came down and helped a lot, he said there was an opportunity at Nice and though it’s not what I wanted, it could be a step sideways to go forwards.”
Cherry fetched up on the Cote d’Azur in 2017, not entirely sure of what to expect. After all the hours and all the extras poured in to better himself, he was struck dumb by the local attitude to training.
I found myself at the bottom of it getting fish-hooked in the mouth and gouged in the eye. That was my introduction to Federale 2.
“The French weren’t quite on our wavelength of striving to get where we wanted. I don’t think they got their head around why we were doing extra weights and fitness. It’s one of the few times in my career when I’ve been told to do less.
“I was frustrated by the level of rugby. I wanted to play at a higher standard, and that slightly hindered my view of the place.”
Then there were the dust-ups. Cherry’s Nice debut almost ended prematurely, and with the Scot doing a passable impression of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
“There are no touch judges. The first game, we’re away from home and they said, ‘listen, there is a lot of fighting in these games’. I was like, ‘yeah, whatever’. Sure enough, first ruck, there’s a scrap and we just had to make a good showing for the Scottish lads. I found myself at the bottom of it getting fish-hooked in the mouth and gouged in the eye. That was my introduction to Federale 2.
“It was fairly common, the derbies were even more heated, but you look back and you laugh and say it was good fun.”
Nice yielded more than rugby bonkerdom. It was there, several sheets to the wind, Cherry met fiancée Olivia. It was there, too, the pair returned and got engaged six months ago.
“I met her the night of, or the morning after, the Conor McGregor-Floyd Mayweather fight. It was in a Kiwi bar where we’d had a lock-in to watch the boxing. I’d had a few pressions, and she was in there on her way to work. God knows how it panned out. God knows what I was saying.”
I’ve got a very, very stubborn trait. My fiancée will tell you that you can’t even play a game of Monopoly with me because I want to win at all costs.
He talks a lot about Olivia, occasionally chiding himself for “giving her too much air time”. It is clear she has stood by him through the anguish of injury and the ire of non-selection and everything else in between.
Indeed, there was a time when Cherry thought international caps would never be his. Scotland had a glut of hookers, performing well. When a raft of injuries prompted Gregor Townsend to call him up in 2019, it was Jake Kerr who debuted instead.
“I thought maybe my opportunity had slipped by. I’ve got a very, very stubborn trait. My fiancée will tell you that you can’t even play a game of Monopoly with me because I want to win at all costs. I drew on that and backed myself. I thought, I’m going to do it, something I’ve always dreamt of doing, refused to take no for an answer, and eventually my opportunity came.”
And how. Scotland bristled in the Twickenham squall. Basics nailed; brutality high; stardust sprinkled by Duhan van der Merwe. Cam Redpath, on his first cap, dazzled at inside centre. Cherry got 13 minutes off the bench and spent almost every second halting the English resistance. At the end, in a beautiful gesture, Stuart Hogg called Cherry and Redpath forward to lift the Calcutta Cup. Two fresh faces now etched into Scottish sporting folklore.
“Gregor told me, ‘you’re going to get on at some point so be ready’,” Cherry says. “The clock kept ticking and I was like, when am I going to get on? Eventually I did. I tried to get into the game – tackle, hit rucks, scrum, see out the game. The final whistle went, and it was only then it sunk in what we’d achieved.
“I was thinking recently, when did I first see the Calcutta Cup? It was when I was playing mini rugby at Edinburgh Accies and [former Scotland wing] Cammie Murray brought it down after Scotland won it in 2000. All those years later, I’d be the one to lift it with Cam at Twickenham. It was all very surreal.”
Soon after, Olivia commissioned a painting of Cherry raising the trophy. It hangs at home, at the top of their stairs.
“I see it every day. It reminds me of what I have achieved. During the low points of injury, selection, it just puts in perspective that I know I can get back there.”
Scotland return to the scene of the crime on Saturday. Another jaunt to Twickenham. Another Six Nations curtain-raiser. Only this time, with the decibel level cranked up by 82,000 punters. The same punters who booed England off in November and sounded the death knell for Eddie Jones. The punters invigorated by Steve Borthwick and expectant, as such a rugby powerhouse should always be.
But after so many barren decades, Scotland’s Calcutta Cup record is exceptional. In five years under Townsend, they have lost once. The silver has resided in the Murrayfield trophy room every season bar 2020.
“We don’t necessarily know what they’re going to throw at us with the new coaching staff,” says Cherry. “We’ll focus on ourselves. We’ll back ourselves.”
From the modesty of the Championship to the eye gouges in Nice and at last, at long last, the joy at Twickenham, Cherry has always backed himself. This is no time to stop.
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