Exeter and Loughborough have led the way again - Their rivalry is set for another thrilling episode

Exeter and Loughborough will face off again at Saracens' StoneX Stadium
©Izzy Poles/BUCS

BUCS Super Rugby's 2023/24 campaign has had no shortage of drama, and with one game left to crown the National Champions, the ‘best league in the land’ will surely once again prove how it came to earn that title.

This Wednesday at Saracens' StoneX stadium, Exeter University take on Loughborough University in the BUCS Super Rugby National Championship final, followed shortly by the Women’s National League finale which sees Hartpury University face Loughborough.

Exeter and Loughborough will be battling it out for the second year in a row, with the 2023 final producing arguably the greatest-ever game in student rugby history.

Eighty minutes was not enough to separate the two sides as a try-infested match finished 41-41 before Exeter edged it in extra-time to win 48-44 in a monumental encounter.

Last year, it was a try from Harry Rowson that clawed Loughborough back into the game and took it beyond regulation time, and the talented winger is once again looking forward to going toe-to-toe with their old rivals.

“So far we’ve done well in both knockout games - we had two really good wins. Both teams gave us a good game but in the second half, we just pulled away from both of them,” Rowson tells TRU

The African Violet’s route to the final has seen them dispatch both Leeds Beckett and Hartpury with respective 37-12 and 37-26 victories, but Rowson understands the challenge will be a step up against reigning league and championship holders Exeter.

“Exeter will be really hard to beat as they’re a good side but we will just focus on ourselves, make sure we are in the best place possible and get all our details right as a team. We will just treat it like any other game, really.

“Last year's final was definitely a very tough loss but I think we were all proud to get all the way to extra time. This year we are certainly even more fired up and want to get revenge for last year.

“I would say it makes us want to win that bit more just because we don’t want to feel the same way we did at full-time watching them lift the trophy.”

Rowson is one of many players in the Loughborough squad - and throughout the league - who have benefited from having a contract with a professional club whilst playing university rugby, and, like others before him, he credits BSR’s role in securing his new contract with Bristol Bears.

“Playing BUCS Super Rugby has really helped in getting me a contract as being in the Loughborough set-up has helped me improve both physically and technically with the great facilities and staff they have.

“Also being able to play week in, week out at Loughborough has helped me improve my skills and general game play, which has helped me get the opportunities at Bristol and a new contract.”

As for Exeter, they have been the team to beat all term, and a record-breaking 80-point season secured them their first league title since 2019.

They finished 15 points ahead of Loughborough and have already beaten them twice this year, so they will arrive at the StoneX with a lot of confidence.

One of those players who has been instrumental in Exeter’s success is Milo Hallam, who also put in a monumental shift in last year’s final, scoring two tries and guiding them to their second National Championship in a row. The lock is looking forward to the chance to cap off an already historic season with some more silverware.

“The squad as a whole are very chuffed with the season so far - we have worked very hard to get to the places we have got to. We set out two big goals at the start of the season - they were to win the league and also get to the final and win it. So as far as that’s concerned, we have almost smashed those two goals,” Hallam says.

“The reason why we have been so formidable this year especially is down to how close we are as a group. We all get on very well and work for the same cause and we all want to do well for each other and for ourselves which just massively helps when playing.

“I think also we have created an identity at the start of the season and not really moved from it too much. We have just worked and worked and built on that identity and it has just meant we all have the same focus and the same goals and been able to perform the way we have this season.”

Exeter’s identity has undoubtedly been free-flowing, attacking rugby and it is a style that has seen them average over 36 points per game. But the same can be said of the African Violet who themselves have scored an average of 34.5 points this season, and the skillset they possess is very apparent.

“Loughborough’s main threats are their kicking game and set piece," Hallam said. "They’ve got a tidy kicking game and know how to kick to space, they will use their set piece to build a platform but we are prepared to nullify them all and take them on.”

Fighting talk from Hallam, who is well aware of the storyline ahead of this game and, just as Rowson stated, Loughborough will want some sort of revenge this year.

“It's the perfect story. The same two finalists are about to play again. They will have that sense of revenge and want to get one back on us.

“But we are equally as pumped up to do the same thing again to them for the second year running. The final is equally important to us as we have won two in a row now and it would be great to finish my time at uni with three BUCS golds in a row.

“Throughout the week as well in training and in our meetings, we haven’t massively discussed them at all, we have just been focusing on ourselves. Critiquing our system here and there to make sure we are ready for the final and for them to fly at us and be able to take those shots and give them back.”

Three BUCS National Championships in a row would be an impressive feat, and just like Hallam, many of the Exeter squad have already experienced that taste of cup final success in the past two years, giving the Devonian side an extra bit of experience.

“We have got lots of members who have been involved in last year’s game and we have a few boys who were involved at Sixways, and to have that depth of knowledge and experience is massively valuable for the team. Throughout the week our captain, Lucas Dorrell, has just been awesome in installing a sense of calm and experience in the training week.

“We have also been trying to simulate parts of the game where we might be massively fatigued but making sure we are still performing with accuracy and that is a massive focus for us as we know how important the dying moments of finals can be.”

As we have learned over the last two years, the game is not over until it’s over and neither team is ever far from getting themselves back into the contest.

This Wednesday’s final is guaranteed to be a competitive, entertaining try-fest as Exeter look to complete the first league-cup double since 2017, whilst Loughborough's aim is to avenge last year's heartache and bring the National Championship back to the Midlands.