"It was a Hartpury v Exeter final in BUCS too" - Why university rugby is a key theme in this year's Allianz Premier 15s finale

The alignment of university programmes with Premier 15s sides at both Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter Chiefs cannot be understated

History will be made at 'Queensholm' this weekend. That is guaranteed. A new name will be added to the Allianz Premier 15s trophy but will it be Gloucester-Hartpury or Exeter Chiefs?

A first meeting in a top-flight final is almost here and yet, as you dig a little deeper, whilst this rivalry might not be as pronounced as Saracens vs Harlequins for example, there is a familiarity between both clubs which adds an extra dimension to Saturday's big dance.

One would argue the principal attraction in both squads is the international quality they contain whether that is Red Roses Sarah Beckett or Zoe Aldcroft in the Cherry and White of Gloucester-Hartpury or USA stars Hope Rogers and Kate Zackary for the Chiefs.

But behind the array of world-class names (because there are quite a few), it is the next generation of talent and the programmes within the programmes which perhaps helps to elevate these sides even further.

The strong links both clubs have with their respective universities cannot be underestimated and neither can their value.

The ascent of Gloucester-Hartpury - who finished the regular season on top of the standings - isn't solely down to the synergy between their university rugby programme and their Premier 15s side, but it is worth noting that Hartpury University are back-to-back BUCS Women's National League champions. That can only have a positive influence on the club as a whole.

In total, nine of the current Gloucester-Hartpury squad played in the 2023 BUCS final. Georgina Brock and Mia Venner were just two of the names to feature in this year's final and then turn out for the Premier 15s side in their semi-final win over Bristol Bears two weeks ago.

"It is massive to what we do," Gloucester-Hartpury's Head of Women's Rugby Sean Lynn tells TRU. "The Women's National League for me is the next step going into that Allianz Prem and playing competitive rugby. Then it is just having a constant dialogue but also me buying into that university programme so that the players can see the next step. That is the pathway of Hartpury University filtering into the Gloucester-Hartpury set-up."

There probably isn't anyone across the rugby landscape who understands the importance of a university pathway quite like Lynn. Before he moved into his current role, he guided Hartpury University's men's side to three successive BUCS Super Rugby titles between 2017 and 2019 so that willingness to nurture players and help them develop is engrained in him.

"When the role came up, I actually said to him please, please apply for the job because I had seen what he had done with the BUCS team," Gloucester-Hartpury prop Kathryn Buggy says. "I am not taking credit for it though!

"You had seen what he had done with the BUCS boys. He just instilled that belief in the team and you could see how he nurtured players and brought out the best in them. We were such a young team [when he started the role in 2020] and I saw his culture so I thought he'd be the best person for the job and luckily for us, he got it."

Buggy, herself, is no stranger to the university system. Alongside completing her Masters in Coaching Science at Hartpury, the Ireland international also experienced the cut and thrust of student rugby, not least in the 2018 BUCS final against Exeter University at Twickenham.

That day, she lined up alongside the likes of current teammates Sophie Tandy and Ellie Gilbert as well as Red Roses stars Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears) and Ellie Killdunne (Harlequins).

But what Buggy is keen to stress is how much the pathway has developed over the last five years or so: "It actually starts even before the university side," she says. "You have the Hartpury College side of it (headed up by Oli Wilson) and that feeds into the university which then feeds into Gloucester-Hartpury so it is actually a good system from when you're about 15, 16.

"It is one filtering into the other and because we are also playing 'our way' all the way up, it is giving that culture from a young age so players know what it is about when they get to senior level.

"We've had some of the college girls come out and do some skills with us during the day when they have a free period which means they are getting exposed to the senior girls which is good too. We get involved in the coaching. Girls like Mo [Hunt], Sam [Monaghan], Maud Muir, and Bethan Lewis, imagine that as a coaching team?

"These are girls that have international experience. You merge them together and you can't really ask for more than that in terms of coaching staff can you?"

The coaching element which Buggy refers to is a key reason why Gloucester-Hartpury's tie with the university works so well. Hunt has coached the university side for the last two seasons - which have both ended in silverware - while Monaghan, Muir and Lewis have all chipped in with their expertise.

And it is someone of Hunt's stature in the game [a World Cup winner and Olympian] - and the way she conducts herself on and off the field - which inspires those around her. "She has just acknowledged and really embraced everything," Lynn adds. "Like you said, she can coach and lead on the pitch as well as off it. It is very natural to her and it is something we value massively.

"The big thing for me is making sure your players are playing rugby but also getting that feedback. Everything we do at Gloucester-Hartpury, this is something which Mo installs as well, is making sure those players are getting constant feedback on how to get better. Mo is just the utmost professional in all aspects of what she does."

The same can also be said for Exeter's Poppy Leitch.

The Chiefs co-captain has, in a way, gone full circle having represented the university, to playing in the Allianz Premier 15s to now also coaching the BUCS side.

In the last 12 months, the 25-year-old has taken Exeter University from the second tier to the Women's National League final but they were beaten by Hunt's Hartpury 45-12 back in April.

Nevertheless, the progression of the team and the up-and-coming talent at the Chiefs' disposal (Katie Buchanan, Lizzie Hanlon, Niamh Orchard, Nancy McGillivray to name but a few) mixed together with an international nucleus of the squad is actually providing Exeter with a balance to their side.

"Exeter Chiefs occasionally get accused of having these international stars and not developing home talent but actually when you look at who is training week in, week out, we have so many really talented young girls," says Red Rose Claudia MacDonald, who has missed the last few games due to international duty and the enforced rest.

"I've always wanted to be involved in the Prem final but any game time missed opens up a door of opportunity for someone else. Katie Buchanan, Eilidh Sinclair, Lori Cramer are fabulous players who really stepped up to the mark, particularly Katie. The last couple of games she has been immense!"

On the university pathway, MacDonald adds: "Poppy runs a pretty similar system at Exeter Uni as Exeter Chiefs. She can not only be looking out for talent and getting girls involved, but they are also learning our system at the same time so if they do make the transition from there to Exeter Chiefs, it's so much easier for them. It is a really good system that should hopefully flourish into having lots of players here at Chiefs that are new and coming through the uni."

"The job Poppy does in terms of the link with the university is incredible," assistant coach Steve Salvin says. "She has got very much of a dual role with us. She's our leader, our captain but she also plays a massive role in terms of helping develop the next string of talent. 

"She's not scared to ask difficult questions of us [the coaching group] and challenge us to get better and when you have got that coming from both the coaching team and the playing side, hopefully it makes striving for excellence that little bit easier.

"My background by trade, I'm an academy coach. I don't think there is anything more rewarding than seeing a player come through from the junior ranks, into the senior ranks and hopefully push on to play international rugby and we think we've got a handful of players floating our programme at the moment who have that potential."

The development of the university programme will also only improve under the watchful eye of Chiefs head coach Susie Appleby. Like her opposite number Lynn, the Exeter boss has lived and breathed the student game having been in charge of women's rugby at Hartpury before taking the opportunity to move to Devon.

That understanding of how to build a team and formulate a healthy environment has taken Exeter from Premier 15s newbies to consecutive finals.

"To give you a little bit of context, I coach the university side on a Monday evening with Poppy," Salvin adds. "If you go and watch a university game down at Topsham [Exeter University's home ground], more often than not, you will see Susie watching it. That shows a level of support that as Chiefs we want to put around the university programme because that is going to be the production line where we get a lot of the exciting talent.

"We have tried to create an environment where we are continually striving for improvement and excellence and we seem to be going in the right direction."

The fact the last four BUCS Championship finals have contained one of Hartpury or Exeter speaks volumes for what both clubs have been able to create whilst Appleby's connections to both finalists on Saturday - and the sub-plot of her coaching Hartpury against Exeter in the BUCS final of 2018 - does add a sense of familiarity to the occasion.

Current Chiefs Clara Nielson and Ebony Jefferies lined up against her Hartpury team that day, but it was Exeter who went on to take the title 35-32 with Leitch also getting on the scoresheet at England HQ: "For me and a few of the players still here, it is still not a great memory!" Buggy reflects. "We were probably the most dominant team in the league that year and to fall at the final hurdle was a bit upsetting but this is rugby.

"This is the thing with finals day. You can't take anything for granted. Like us [Gloucester-Hartpury] this season, we finished top of the league but we can't take that for granted against Exeter.

"There is one or two of us who were maybe involved in that final in 2018 and we know the feeling of that and we never want to feel that again so we will be gunning for it!

"With Susie being our past coach, it is a healthy rivalry! What she did at Gloucester-Hartpury is what she has done at Exeter in terms of starting from new. It is always great to see her but you always want to come out on top and Saturday will be no different."

It will be a history-making campaign for whichever side claims the Premier 15s title on Saturday but the programmes within the programmes have been a key component in getting both teams to this point.

Whatever the outcome at 'Queensholm', the university pathway connected to each club's DNA will continue. Developing and nurturing talent isn't a new thing for Gloucester-Hartpury or Exeter Chiefs but reaching the pinnacle of women's club rugby would only see them grow further from a clear position of strength.