Chris Bell chimes a chord as one of Cambridge University RUFC's leaders in Varsity Match build-up
The transformation of Chris Bell in his four years at Cambridge University Rugby Union Football Club has been fascinating to watch.
The scrum-half is a double-winning Blue and will be looking to make it a hat-trick of successes in his fourth and final year at the university.
If you wind the clock back to his first year in the Light Blues squad in 2016, it is quite remarkable to see how much his game has developed.
Undergraduate Bell had just arrived to study history at Cambridge, with his previous rugby experiences coming from St Paul’s School.
Seb Tullie was the undoubted first choice at No 9, leaving Bell to pick up the minutes as and where he could get them.
It was a similar story in the second year, but then Tullie picked up a knee injury in the win over Crawshays Welsh XV in 2017, thrusting Bell into the spotlight and he has not looked back.
“My first season and the majority of my second season I was behind Seb in the pecking order, developing and learning quite a lot,” says Bell.
“He got injured two weeks before Varsity in my second year. I was put into the team and knew I was probably going to play the majority of the Varsity Match.
“We won and I was lucky enough to get man of the match. It was quite a big confidence boost for me.”
When Bell talks of it being a confidence boost, that is perhaps an understatement.
Anyone who watches the Light Blues on a regular basis will see just how much he has gone on to flourish, becoming one of the leaders and senior players within the squad as his physicality has also changed.
It goes to show what can be achieved in the right environment with the right coaching, and also illustrates the big step between youth and senior rugby for even the most talented youngsters.
“Any young guy coming into men’s rugby, the first few games and years you see all these big players and think ‘how am I meant to make an impact?’,” says Bell.
“Then you do some of the S&C work to put on weight, and playing a lot just gives you a lot of confidence to be a force in men’s rugby.
“I never did any academy stuff, as they never showed much interest in our school because no-one from our school had turned pro – that’s at least what I tell myself!
“Coming from schoolboy rugby, it is a completely different sport and when you’re playing men’s rugby it takes you a while to develop and understand where you should be playing, and how you should be playing different areas of the pitch and managing the tempo.
“Particularly in that first year settling in, from a rugby perspective it was a bit daunting at first, but gaining that experience under the belt helped a lot.
“It’s one thing that I’ve just developed with experience and having Shanners (head coach James Shanahan) as coach, who is a half-back himself, it’s been useful and also having had Seb in the first few years, who was very good at that kind of thing – so it’s learning from people around me.”
Bell cuts a sprightly figure, and is always alert around the fringes to snipe.
Statistics are difficult to acquire from the university’s matches during the Michaelmas and Lent Terms, but it would be interesting to tot up how many tries he has scored during his four years.
However, he is quite modest about what some might describe as his trademark darts around the collision area.
“I’ve always been one of the smaller players on the pitch so my speed has been my USP and being able to make those breaks around the breakdown, the rucks and mauls, is something I pride myself on,” he says.
“I enjoy making those breaks and trying to score tries. It’s something I’ve been brought up to try to have a go and test those fringe defences to see if I can get through.”
Another area of Bell’s game has been equally noticeable so far this season – his kicking.
With Jake Hennessey overseas for a year and Mike Phillips injured, it meant that someone was required to take over the duties from the tee.
And Bell has stepped up to the plate.
“I kicked at school and was completely useless,” he says. “I have had a lot of sessions with the skills coach Andy Holloway, who works with Ealing as well, and this year we knew that Jake (Hennessey) was leaving and he was the back-up kicker to Mikey (Phillips).
“I started practising a bit and it has worked out well so far.”
It is all shaping up to a positive run-in to the Varsity Match against Oxford at Twickenham on Thursday, December 12, with a nice mix to the Light Blues squad.
“We’ve had four or five new guys come in with a lot of experience,” says Bell, “like Flip (van der Merwe) and James Horwill who are the big names, but also guys like Al Gliksten, who spent three years at Sarries; Charlie Watson has just arrived after a year at Sarries; and a couple of other very good players.
“We also have loads of guys returning from last year, so it’s a very positive atmosphere.”
More by this authorMark Taylor
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