'I did get fed up but now I absolutely love it' - How university rugby allowed Sophie Bridger to recapture her enjoyment for the sport

Following a successful season with Gloucester Hartpury, Sophie Bridger is set to join Saracens
©Gloucester Rugby

After a title-winning season with Gloucester-Hartpury, Sophie Bridger is looking forward to new horizons with Saracens in Premiership Women’s Rugby.

Arriving in North London after a first full season in the Gloucester setup, and just a year removed from a BUCS Women’s National League triumph with Hartpury, the 22-year-old continually impressed for Sean Lynn’s team.

After seven years in Gloucestershire, a BUCS Women’s National League title and an Allianz Premier 15s crown later, Bridger is joining three-time champions Saracens.

Highly touted after a mightily impressive campaign in the West Country, the back is excited by the new challenge on offer to her at StoneX Stadium.

“I think Saracens have always been one of those top clubs in the Prem,” Bridger said. “I am lucky enough to know the coach, Alex (Austerberry). I was coached by him at U18s with the TDG (Talent Development Group). 

“I respect his coaching and his values. I think he is an excellent coach, so that was quite an incentive for me. I think it is a really great environment. I can learn from Zoe Harrison and other people at the club.

“As well, being in a new environment. I have been at Hartpury so long and I have loved every moment of it, but while I am getting older and out of uni, I need to switch up my environment and move somewhere else.

“Saracens is kind of the perfect place for that. With excellent coaching staff, the players, it all just seemed like a new place to go, find my way and hopefully be consistent in that starting line-up.” 

Leaving home at 15 for Hartpury College for its fabled rugby programme, Bridger has spent a significant chunk of her life in Gloucester. In that time, there have been years missed on the pitch due to injury and Covid-19, the road to this point a long and winding one.

From Wincanton, South Somerset, the 22-year-old was inspired to pick up a rugby ball for the first time thanks to three older brothers and her desire to attend Hartpury first emerged in Year 9.

It is fair to say that things haven't always been rosy for Bridger. A period of disillusionment with the game whilst at university meant that her enjoyment for the sport wavered.

“I always knew I wanted to go to Hartpury,” she said. “I was always involved with the setup, the whole programme. Rugby was the dream. That was where I wanted to be.

“I feel like I lost that a little bit in uni through injuries (Bridger missed two seasons because of injury) and I wanted to have a different life and not want everything to revolve around rugby.

“I think when you find the balance, you find the love for it again and you get back to it. I have been playing since I was six, so to be obsessed with it the whole way is a big ask.

“I did get fed up, but now I absolutely love it again and have done for the past couple of years. It is always something I have wanted to do and I am glad I am back to it and stuck to it.”

In December, Bridger would credit her BUCS coach, and club teammate, Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt, with helping her rekindle that passion. Having spent so long with rugby and university being so intense, the Covid enforced break took some pressure off the youngster who can slot in at centre and fly-half.

Now describing that time as helpful in understanding “that I don’t need to do it (rugby) if I don’t want to”, Bridger returned to the game with a vengeance in the 2021/22 season. 

Captaining Hartpury under the guidance of Hunt, she was named in the BUCS Women’s National League team of the season at fly-half, where her future may lie in the capital, and won the Women’s National League Championship.

“I think it was second year, going into third year,” Bridger said, reflecting on the time when she fell out of love with rugby.

“At the same time, Covid hit. They are big years at uni when you have got a lot on. You want to enjoy your time, have fun with your friends, make memories and when you are in rugby 24/7, it is a lot.

“During Covid, everything stopped anyway. That was probably it and by the end of third year when everything started opening back up and Covid was dying down, I found the enjoyment of it in BUCS.

Bridger (left) with fellow BUCS graduates Mia Venner and Georgia Brock
©Gloucester Rugby

“It’s a lot more relaxed, free rugby. You can play how you like. It is exciting. Also, I was playing with my best friends week in, week out, going to training three times a week with the people I would go to breakfast with after.

“It’s all of it. Then, having Mo and Bethan (Lewis) as our coaches, their understanding as players and just allowing that freedom, it was that balance, that environment that helped build that confidence back up.

“It is the perfect place to be and that’s BUCS rugby, isn’t it? It’s elite, fun rugby.”

That element of enjoyment in an elite environment was then translated across to Gloucester-Hartpury. It was not as if there was no pressure on the side in 2022/23, the team making a statement with the recruitment of England internationals Maud Muir, Alex Matthews and Sarah Beckett, who added to the already world-class talents of Hunt, Tatyana Heard and Zoe Aldcroft.

There were even players representing both the university and senior club across the course of the season. Goal-kicking full-back Emma Sing, now the recipient of a central RFU contract, was one while one-cap Mia Venner became an increasingly influential force on the wing.

Coming off the bench in the all-West Country Premier 15s final against Exeter Chiefs several weekends ago, Bridger was key in seeing out the game as Gloucester-Hartpury created history.

Such was her impact on the pitch throughout the campaign, Bridger was also called into England camp earlier in the year. Not officially named in any of Simon Middleton’s squads throughout the TikTok Women’s Six Nations, she stayed in camp with the team as they bagged yet another Grand Slam.

Bridger spent time in England camp across the course of the TikTok Women's Six Nations
©Gloucester Rugby

It stands to reason that carrying on her good form will catch the eye of England’s incoming head coach, John Mitchell, too. 

“I think that (being in England camp) came at the right time for me,” Bridger said. “I was very grateful and very lucky to be involved in the five weeks that I was. It was eye-opening.

“It was a lot to take in, but it was a really good experience and I am so grateful that I got called in and that I was part of it.

“The girls were so welcoming as well. It is a scary environment to walk into. Some of them have played for England for years, so you go in as the small fish, and I very much still am.

“If it only comes around once, then that’s fine. It was unreal and what I needed when I needed it.”

Much like the future of the women’s game, with the rebranded top-flight and Rugby World Cup 2025 on a collision course for English shores, Bridger has everything in front of her.

And in many ways, her recent goodbye to Gloucester was perfect.

Lifting two trophies in as many years and creating so many memories along the way is a good place to start, while London’s call will only push the midfielder along further.

“I am glad it finished like that,” Bridger said. “For so many of the girls that was the dream, and I know for a couple of them they have been there years and years like Ellie Rugman, Rachel Lund, and a few more.

“Mo is a Gloucester girl, grew up here, but I know for Ellie and Rach that was a massive thing for them. It was nice to be a part of it, help them get that place, that final and just watch the girls tear up on the day.

“Being on that subs bench, the atmosphere was incredible behind us. You could see 'The Shed' on the other side of the pitch going mental. It was just unreal.

“It is a fairy tale ending to the season. For me to sign off at that point as well, it was a really good end to the season. I am glad it ended that way.”