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Dual-pronged challenge for Cambridge University RUFC and Saracens’ Charlie Watson

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Charlie Watson in action for Cambridge University in the 2019 Varsity Match. Picture: Rich Marsham
Charlie Watson in action for Cambridge University in the 2019 Varsity Match. Picture: Rich Marsham

Determination and a competitive spirit is ingrained in Charlie Watson.

He was not even into his teen years when it came to the fore, and ultimately created a pathway to the University of Cambridge.

“I specifically remember not being put in the top set, the Scholarship Class,” he says of being in Year 7.

“I wasn’t actually top set material, I just remember that ignited a desire to do well in my studies and it became a bit of a competition for me.

“By sixth form, Cambridge was the prize and that was the competition.”

The target was achieved by Watson, who is now in the second year of a biological natural sciences degree at Selwyn College.

However, just making it to Cambridge was a bit too easy for the 20-year-old.

You see, Watson is also an accomplished rugby union player.

Alongside his academics, he is on a three-year professional contract with Saracens, which works around his commitments at Cambridge.

While it is not unique, it is extremely rare and often, especially in our teenage years, we are told that we need to prioritise one thing over another – in this case it would have been either elite rugby union or going to study Cambridge.

But Watson was having none of it.

“I’ve been told that since the year dot,” he almost sighs.

“I would always be told I had to pick a sport, and all through school I said ‘no, I don’t. I want to do everything – I want to play cricket, football, hockey’.

“I did them all, and I think that also made me a better rugby player for sure. The same with academics.

“I was told by numerous people – I just don’t think they know enough to be honest – that if I wanted to go to Cambridge then I had to drop it all and go for Cambridge. Or, if I wanted to do rugby, that I couldn’t be doing all the academics.

“But I’m glad that I can show you can. It’s just about how much you want it.

“As a person, I could never settle for just doing rugby or just doing academics.

“I definitely find that whenever I have my stints at university, I have a burning desire to get back to the club and start training again. But whenever I’m at the club, I’m thinking ‘damn I miss university’ – I always find it goes so well together.”

The support of his parents was no doubt a crucial factor for Watson, and he was helped by his father being a professional sportsman – and it also ran through the family.

Darren Watson was a footballer who played for Nottingham Forest reserves and Coventry City, his grandfather played for Birmingham City, and his great grandfather also played for Birmingham.

There is clearly a football lineage in the Watsons, which does beg the question of why the current pro chose rugby?

“I wasn’t guided towards any sport but I think it got to the stage where dad was also sick with football and the way the game was going with parents on the sideline shouting and abusing the ref,” explains Watson.

“I guess he didn’t want me to grow up in that environment and brought me to rugby and from then I just loved it.

“With rugby, I see it as going to war and it’s just such an adrenaline-fuelled sport – I love it.

“I feel once you play rugby it unlocks a door and once you play another sport where there is no aggression, it feels like you can’t achieve anything because in rugby you know that you can release yourself more.

“You obviously admire your parents and seeing my dad playing football and how good he was at sport, makes you want to be like him – rugby was a way of doing that.”

There is another a common bond between father and son, they have both represented England.

Darren played for England under-18s, and Charlie represented England under-20s last year – he missed out on the Under-20 World Rugby Championship in Italy after it was cancelled because of the pandemic.

The two caps sit side by side on the mantelpiece at the family home.

Once his son had chosen rugby, the onus fell on Watson senior to help him pursue his ambitions.

Having been selected into the Saracens junior academy, it meant treks from Canterbury, where Watson attended The King’s School, to North London to attend training, and that was through the rush hour on a Monday night.

It was a great learning curve for what was to come though.

Charlie Watson in action for Cambridge University in the 2019 Varsity Match. Picture: Rich Marsham
Charlie Watson in action for Cambridge University in the 2019 Varsity Match. Picture: Rich Marsham

“It was definitely hard to juggle, but also there was Thursday training as well,” says Watson.

“There is no answer how to balance it, I would say. It’s just getting your head down and trying to make the most of it – damage limitation really.”

Two days after sitting his A-levels, Watson was straight into the full-time environment at Saracens, where he did his first year full time.

It was the season in which the club did the European Cup and Premiership double.

But now he is part-time, spending the eight-week terms at the university and then going back to Saracens during the holidays.

“I think they see me more as an investment, as in they’re not expecting me to be playing regularly at the moment because I’ve got my university commitments,” he explains.

“They also recognise that I couldn’t turn down Cambridge as an opportunity, so they allowed me to do that which is pretty special.”

That has certainly been to the benefit of Cambridge University RUFC, but it did not get off to the easiest start.

Watson arrived at Cambridge with a five-week ban and then tore ligaments in his ankle just before his return.

It meant a rush to get fit for the match against the Steele-Bodger XV to try to earn a place in the Light Blues’ line-up for the Varsity Match. Watson achieved his objective, helping Cambridge to a 15-0 win over Oxford at Twickenham in 2019.

The environment at Grange Road is one that Watson savours, although has sadly been absent for much of the last year.

“Any involvement I have, whether that’s training, matches, socials, fancy dinners, I love it all – I don’t ever want it to end,” he says.

“All the boys are such great lads. Often there is a Cambridge stereotype of sitting in your room, working non-stop and getting paler by the day.

“Obviously, there are a lot of intelligent people at the rugby club but when those certain characters come together, it just really ignites such an enjoyable environment to be in.

“We will be in a team meeting, and our coach will give a basic drill that he has done in the week with Blackheath and there will be five hands go up and everyone is asking basically how to complicate the drill as much as possible.

“I think that just really sums up Cambridge as a whole. It will be such a basic drill and they just make it sound so complicated.”

Watson does not go light on himself in that regard though.

His choice of studies originated in how biological systems work, especially the human body. Over time, that has expanded to other organisms, such as animals, plants and wider eco-systems.

It was the broad spectrum of the field that made the subject appeal.

“It is one of those courses where you can never complete it and feel satisfied with the amount of work you’re doing because there is always more you can do, which is hard to get used to,” says Watson.

“You can make it as hard as you want, I would say.”

This was an insight into the psyche of Watson, who it feels is not happy if not making things harder for himself – you can relate it back to pursuing studying at Cambridge and professional rugby.

“I feel like a lot of the time I’m searching for time that I’ve got nothing to do so I can sit down and watch Netflix or something,” he says.

“As soon as I achieve that, I’m bored. I think to myself that I don’t like being comfortable, I would rather be in that uncomfortable situation.

“But while you’re uncomfortable, you are always wanting to have that time – it’s like a never-ending battle.

“I do like being extremely busy but obviously it comes with certain difficulties. It’s stressful but I do love it – it’s sort of like an addiction.”

Watson, who is in the University of Cambridge Athlete Performance Programme, is determined to make the most of both academic and sporting worlds.

Those who have trodden a similar path often talk about them going hand in hand with each other, although he does offer a word of caution on that point.

“It can drive you, but it can be used as an excuse,” he says.

“If things aren’t going well at rugby, it can be used as an excuse. I can think to myself ‘don’t do rugby then, just go and study’.

“Whereas if you are an out-and-out rugby player you can find an inner motivation as that’s all you’re doing, so I think it can go both ways. I try to focus on it positively.”

He adds: “Right now, I’m focusing on my degree and then I will have a few years focusing on rugby to see how far I can get it whilst keeping things ticking over academically.”

And, given all that has gone before, you get the impression that Watson will be a success at whatever he turns his hand to in both the short and long term.

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