IT might be stretching it to describe Stade des Arboras – the home ground of Stade Niçois on the south coast of France – as a happy hunting ground, but Scotland hooker Dave Cherry believes that the 2017-18 season he spent with the club playing in the notoriously brutal lower leagues of French rugby was a formative experience which was the catalyst to a late flourishing in his career.
After failing to secure a pro contract in Scotland, Edinburgh-born-and-bred Cherry headed south to play for London Scottish in the second-tier English Championship in 2014, and was just about ready to give up on his dream of experiencing top flight professional rugby with the chance of making it onto the international stage when Scottish Rugby got in touch three years later to ask if he was interested in hooking up with their partnership club on the Côte d’Azur.
While there was plenty to like about the location, he wasn’t convinced that it was the best rugby route at that time, until he had a conversation with John Dalziel, who is now the Scotland forwards coach but was on secondment to London Scottish at that point.
“I was in two minds whether to go as it was not the path I really wanted to go down and JD convinced me I should,” recalls Cherry. “He said it was a sideways step to go forward so I trusted him and then I remember I came to train with Edinburgh around Christmas time and Richard Cockerill [the head coach of Edinburgh] said he wanted me to stay but I had to go back and finish my time out here. When the [Edinburgh] contract came, that put my mind at ease that I had done enough to get back home.”
Cherry explains that it wasn’t the standard of rugby that helped catapult his career forward but the resilience and toughness he had to show in order to survive in that dog-eat-dog environment.
“It was Federale Two so I don’t know how that equates [to the league structure he was used to in England], all I know is that there were no touch judges,” recalls the now 32-year-old, referencing the fact that there was a lot of off-the-ball action which was rarely picked up by the lonely referee charged with keeping some sort of control of the contest.
“I have videos of it. ‘The good old days,’ as you would probably say. There would usually be a right barney and it would start with the scrum. That was how it went, week in, week out.
“Nobody particularly liked our club. They were just jealous of us, I guess. So every week was the same, and that’s just the way it was.”
The partnership with Scottish Rugby involved players being sent to the club to get game exposure, but the training regime was not as professionalised as was available at Edinburgh and Glasgow, so the reality was that they had to do what ever needed to be done themselves.
“There was a group of us here – Tyrone Holmes, Peter Murchie, Bruce Flockhart and Josh Henderson – and we took it on ourselves to do extra gym and graft and get that contract back home, so that spurred me on to keep at it and never give up,” Cherry explains.
“It was not the usual path that a rugby player in my position would take but I would not have changed it. It has shaped me as to how I am and the story of how I got here.
“I remember going to the first game in some village and in the dressing room beforehand I was told: ‘If it kicks off, we are all in’. I was thinking: ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this before’. But it really did kick-off. I flew in and found myself at the bottom of a ruck and that was that, it all kicked off from there. There were handbags flying everywhere.
“It was sink or swim. Luckily, I swam and the French adopted me and liked the fact I got stuck in with them, and the rest is history, I guess.
“It wasn’t ideal but how we had to play in that league. The goal was to get promoted and that’s what we did. Thankfully I got a contract at Edinburgh off the back of that.”
Having been rejected by his hometown club at the start of his career, meaning he had to prove himself in the lower leagues of England and France during what should have been the peak seasons of his career, Cherry approaches the game with the intensity of a guy who has fought tooth and nail for everything he has achieved.
His determination to make the most the time he has left at the top means he will stay in France for the duration of this World Cup campaign, despite the fact his fiancé, Olivia, is due to give birth the day after Scotland’s pool match against Tonga.
“I am committed to playing the games for Scotland and you never know when she will appear, but Olivia is at ease with that,” he firmly states. “I am pretty driven, and, if I’m honest, this will be my last World Cup, I am going to throw everything at it. I have thrown the kitchen sink at it already and it doesn’t stop now, it is just starting.”
Cherry is in a three-way shoot-out against George Turner (who was first choice hooker during the Six Nations) and up-and-coming Ewan Ashman (who will become a clubmate at Edinburgh when they return from France) for the Scotland No 2 jersey.
While he lacks Turner’s explosive power and Ashman’s dynamism, he is arguably the strongest of the trio technically in that specialist position, and the most effective at the breakdown.