BUCS Super Rugby preview: Can Exeter match Hartpury's record and claim a hat-trick of titles?

Last season, Exeter defeated Loughborough in one of the greatest university rugby finales
©BUCS Super Rugby

If you thought Hartpury University's stranglehold on BUCS Super Rugby was mightily impressive between 2017 and 2019, perhaps Exeter University are ready to match that feat.

The dominant team in red towards the end of the last decade have been replaced by the green and white of Exeter, who will be gunning for a hat-trick of titles in 2023-24.

Back in April, a most absorbing and memorable BSR final against Loughborough saw the Devonshire institution clinch back-to-back championships at Saracens' StoneX Stadium and who is to say Exeter can't do it again?

"There is no point talking about those things [winning a third title] until you lay the foundations in the early season and you put in those performances that lead to results that get you to finals!" Exeter's Head of Men's Rugby Gareth Elliott tells TRU. "If you start talking about that too early, you're digging yourself a hole!

"It is important to see everyone will be gunning for you because of what we have done in the last two years. Everyone will have you as the number one game they are looking at in the season so we have got to wear that and wear that with pride and make sure we are raising our game to that. We know that if we sit still, then other sides are just going to catch us up."

Exeter's double might be an indication of what is to come this season, but if they are to replicate the achievements of old foes Hartpury, they will do so in a new era for the university.

After 15 years at the helm, Director of Rugby Keith Fleming officially retired from his role during the summer with Elliott now stepping into his shoes to continue the progression of one of the most successful university rugby programmes.

"I can't put into words how much he [Keith] has done for the university and also, just from a personal point of view, my development and him being a mentor to me," Elliott, who was forwards coach under Fleming, says. "That has been massively important for my career as well. He has left so much of an impression on the programme but also the individuals [such as Wales internationals Christ Tshiunza and Daffyd Jenkins et al] who have gone through the programme over the years.

"All I want to do is keep progressing what is already laid in the foundation. I am really excited to do that. I am just going to try and add to what Keith laid and push things on."

While Exeter's defence begins against fierce rivals Hartpury on Wednesday, last year's beaten championship finalists Loughborough will want to produce another strong season. Last term, Martin Webdale's men clinched their first league title since 2016 and they were inches away from a double, only to have their hearts broken.

"It was a great season all round both on and off the pitch," Webdale reflects. "Look, it is about the journey and our players are with us for three, four sometimes five years and people grow as individuals. Don't get me wrong, it was brilliant lifting the league at Cardiff Met and then like I said to the team after extra-time in the final against Exeter, 'You won't realise it now but you have been part of a fantastic game.' I think we all realise we were part of something special last year and it really embodied what student rugby is all about."

Despite being edged out in the final, Loughborough see last year as a platform to build on with Webdale admitting the decisive moments they experienced will only help the development of the squad.

"We were around the top at Christmas," he says. "We lost the first game post-Christmas [a 20-17 defeat away at Nottingham] and then went on a really good run after that. It was that sort of week-to-week, building every game and it suddenly became more and more important. Exeter were winning, Durham were winning, and we were at the top being chased by everybody but the players really came to the fore and handled that pressure fantastically well.

"We now have the experience of last year with a lot of new guys coming in so we will see where that takes us. As a whole, the league is only going to improve so it is going to be tough. We have probably got a little bit of a target on our back now but it is up to us to perform every single week."

Beaten semi-finalists Bath and Cardiff will want to continue with the strides they made in 2022-23. After ending the 2021-22 campaign in ninth, the Blue and Gold's finished fourth last term and reached the last four of the championships before falling to a 30-27 loss to Loughborough.

"It was much better than the year before!" says Bath Head of Rugby Aaron James. "We'd like to be higher because first is always the aim but it was mostly pleasing! We took a lot of confidence out of it. It is the same target for us, though. We want to consistently be in the top four and first is in the top four so if we want to be that, why don't we strive for that? We just need to be consistent."

As for Cardiff - who finished sixth -  they were perhaps the surprise package of 2022-23 as they stunned Durham to bag a semi-final spot before running eventual champions Exeter extremely close in the last four. "We had a good core group but the work ethic and the environment was fantastic and the commitment from every single person involved with the club just helped us progress," Head of Rugby Alan Flowers says.

"It was one of our ambitions to try and go a step further than the year before [losing to Cardiff Met in the quarter-finals in 2021-22] and the key messages were last year to go out there and have fun, but create firsts and we did that by reaching the semi-finals.

"We are in our transition year now because we have lost a lot of that core group so it will be a different challenge this year but our ambitions remain the same. We just want to keep moving forward."

Durham and Hartpury may well be keen to make statements this term after quarter-final appearances last season. The Palatinates - who won the league title in 2020 and 2022 - will enter their first full campaign under the guidance of Simon Culley - who took over the reins from Alex Keay towards the end of 2022-23 after the legendary Head of Rugby announced his retirement following 12 successful years at the helm: "It is same but different!" Cully says.

"Alex and I worked together for a long time but I think the core philosophy of Durham of what it is there for is that it is there for the boys. You are there to empower them and drive things forward so when you do have the quality of students we have seen here, the coaching is actually a little bit easier.

"Look, from an on-field perspective, it is never nice to give up a title you've held for two years. Take away the learnings from last year, we have got to be more consistent and just focus on ourselves."

What of Hartpury then? Seventh in 2021-22 and fifth last term: "We came into last year looking to build on the year before," coach Dan Murphy tells TRU. "It wasn't a great year for us the year before. That wasn't where we wanted to be or where Hartpury are. We wanted to be back where we belong. 

"We lost to Bath in the quarter-final last year but we made progress. This league is amazing because it is fine margins week in, week out. We beat Exeter away first game of the year last year! It is about building on what progress we made last year and making those fine margins even smaller and turning them in our favour."

How about the two remaining Welsh institutions, Cardiff Met and Swansea University? After delivering a third-place finish in 2021-22, The Archers had to settle for seventh last year with head coach Ian Gardner admitting Met will be out to improve as much as possible this term: "It was a strange one for us really as I think we were top of the league in November and then successive losses led to a real disappointing run of losing seven games. It was probably our worst-ever BUCS season.

"We have had to reflect on that and look at ourselves as a coaching group and as players. We know how strong the other teams have become so hopefully we can improve. We have got a very different squad this year but it is always exciting."

With Cardiff Met also announcing the appointment of former Fiji 7s Olympic-winning coach Gareth Barber as their Director of Rugby System - designed to deliver a high quality and exciting experience for players, from their junior programme through to the performance programmes - his "invaluable understanding of the game" could help nudge Met up the table.

As for Swansea, they are hoping last year's season of transition will see them climb the standings.

"It [2022-23] was a fresh start," Swansea's Rugby Performance Manager Hugh Gustafson says. "A lot of our senior boys moved on and we played about 18 freshers and it was a learning curve. We have grown as a squad even though we finished ninth. The year before, we went unbeaten in seven and finished fifth and that was a mature side that we had created over four years so it is a cycle. 

"Now this group, we have experienced the losses (13 of them in total), the Varsity's, playing Cardiff Met, they know what is coming so that fear has left the body a little bit. People say you learn more when you lose than you do when you win so we probably learnt a lot about ourselves."

And the same feeling may apply to Leeds Beckett and Rugby Programme Manager Kerry Wood. The Yorkshire institution finished bottom of the pile last season, collecting just one win all term. They then survived the BUCS Super Rugby play-off by beating the rapidly up-and-coming Brunel University 23-17 but after a year of transition, Beckett are feeling ready to potentially go again.

"It was a tough season," Wood reflects. "As an individual and as a coach, I want the team that I am coaching doing well but university rugby is a cycle and with us last year - and I don't want to make excuses - we had four or five guys towards the end of pre-season either leave university for a contract or for other reasons so that left a little bit of a hole in our squad.

"We had a number of guys leave on top of that so it was our transition year. A difficult season turns into a learning season, doesn't it?

"I never want to be in there [in the BSR play-off] again! Actually though, when I reflect and look back at it, what a great moment for us as Leeds Beckett. For us to be in the trenches, it was great to pull through and it was an amazing day to be a part of but we don't want to be there again! The reality is we were bottom last year so we have got ground to make up."

While Beckett and Swansea occupied the bottom two places, it was last year's newcomers Nottingham who clinched a quarter-final spot in their maiden BSR season. After a dream start to the campaign - beating Leeds Beckett on their own turf - Paul Westlake's troops finished eighth and there was also recognition of their achievement at the end-of-season BUCS Super Rugby awards, with the Green and Gold's boss winning Coach of the Season while James Cherry won Fan's Player of the Season.

"I suppose the main reflection is one of pride that not only were we able to come up and play some decent rugby, but we survived and we qualified for the championships," says Westlake. "It was a big step up and it was great to be part of it all. As a coach, you want your team to be competitive but we learnt a lot of lessons whilst playing our unstructured style along the way. It is now building on last year and I hope we surprise a few people again this year."

Opening Week Fixtures - Wednesday 27th September - (Kick-off times also listed)

Exeter vs Hartpury (1400)

Nottingham v Loughborough (1400) - Live-stream on BUCS TV

Cardiff v Leeds Beckett (1800)

Durham vs Bath (1830)

Swansea vs Cardiff Met (1830)