Meet the next second row off the Leicester production line

Finn Carnduff - Meet the next second row off the Leicester production line
Finn Carnduff prepares for another big year in the early part of his career - Getty Images/Andy Watts

In the professional era, Leicester’s association with Test second rows is hardly novel.

Between them, the quartet of Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Louis Deacon and Geoff Parling amassed over 200 caps for England and over 1,000 appearances for the Tigers. For five years after the last of those outings, however – Parling in 2015 – there was a dearth of young second-row talent at the club. There were locks who were good enough for Premiership level, but few who had been identified as potential world-beaters.

Since the emergence of Ollie Chessum and George Martin, however, that all changed. The duo have developed – fitness permitting - into a ubiquitous part of Steve Borthwick’s England. And, behind them at the Tigers, there is Lewis Chessum, Ollie’s younger brother who captained England Under-20s in the 2023 Six Nations.

Following in Lewis Chessum’s footsteps is yet another product of this impressive East Midlands second-row production line, Finn Carnduff. The 19-year-old, not born when Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003, will be under-20s captain in the forthcoming Six Nations, with England kicking off their campaign, after last year’s fourth-place finish, in Treviso on Feb 2. Given the role has not just been done by Lewis Chessum but also by Tigers Emeka Ilione and Jack van Poortvliet in previous years, Carnduff has many shoulders to lean on.

Finn Carnduff - Meet the next second row off the Leicester production line
Finn Carnduff (centre) gives his post-match talk whilst in action for England - Getty Images/Ashely Crowden

“Having them at Leicester is very valuable; being able to learn from them, ask them questions,” said Carnduff, a product of Leicester Grammar School and Johnson’s former club, Market Harborough. “All the boys would say the same about their setups; being in these professional environments and being able to get the opinion of these sorts of players, asking them questions, is so valuable.

“Jack and Emeka have both also done the role, too, so I’ve been bouncing ideas off those guys in terms of what worked and what didn’t. But, also, trying to do it my own way. Having those guys who have done it before, though, is just so helpful.”

Despite such confidants, Carnduff insists that this England Under-20s side will be led his way. The 19-year-old, who made his senior debut for Leicester in Premiership Rugby Cup fixture two years ago, cites the attitude of a couple of Tigers legends as something which the lock, who can also deputise at flanker, would like to emulate. They were on show in one particularly forthright team-talk tweeted by the England Rugby account earlier this month.

“I first went to watch the Tigers when I was six years old, when I first started playing rugby,” Carnduff adds. “The player who really stood out was Geordan Murphy; his attitude - he would almost have to be pulled off the pitch! As I slowly moved to the forwards, getting slower, the likes of [Tom Croft], those guys, the guys who you think of when you think of Leicester.

“And this England team is going to be one that doesn’t go away. No matter the score, situation or game, we’re going to have a team that plays for 80 minutes and does the England badge proud. We spoke a couple of weeks ago about what didn’t go so well the past couple of years, and one of those things was that the team, maybe at tougher times, would go away. Effort for 80 minutes is what we’re going to pride ourselves on this year, regardless of what position we’re in.”

Finn Carnduff (L) - Meet the next second row off the Leicester production line

Sitting in England Under-20s training base at Bisham Abbey, the straight-talking Carnduff knows his trajectory could have been altogether different. Not in terms of representation – despite the name’s Celtic overtones, Carnduff is English through and through - but in terms of his development, his career. Then, Covid changed things; one of few warming tales to have come from the pandemic.

“I wasn’t the biggest,” says Carnduff. “Leading up to Covid, I enjoyed rugby and loved playing it but I wasn’t the biggest kid. Lockdown was a massive turning point for me. It gave me a real opportunity to sit myself down, for a long period, and consider whether I really wanted to do this. The answer was wholeheartedly yes and I sat there and thought: ‘I’ve got nothing to do for five, six months, let’s just gym and eat loads of food.’ My GCSEs didn’t go ahead but I honed in and put on 20 kilograms over that period. I really went after it.

“I don’t think mum would have been too happy with the food bill, though. But that was a big moment for me.”

Now, Carnduff is set to benefit from the work of Steve Borthwick, his former head coach of Leicester, in streamlining the pathway for young English talent from the Under-20s to the senior squad. Borthwick is a great believer in the benefits of tangible rungs – Under-20s, the renewed A team, and the senior squad – for the development of young players. Carnduff concurs.

“It’s nice as a player to be able to see stepping stones,” says Carnduff. “Everyone’s long-term goal is to play for England or the Lions but to see those shorter-term steps to get there fills you with confidence. There’s a closer challenge that you can go for. You’re always striving for those things.

“It’s about short-term and long-term goals. This year I have the under-20s and I’ll focus on that. Next year is what next year is. Look at guys like Greg [Fisilau] and Chandler [Cunningham-South, both under-20s last year] and they’ve had their opportunities and taken them. They do come.”

Whether short term or long term, however, the born-and-bred Leicestrian is unequivocal when asked if he would ever leave the Tigers: “I’m not planning on doing so any time soon!”

Sooner rather than later, Martin and the two Chessums will have some competition.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.