The quality of university rugby continues to grow year in, year out and one person who can claim to have witnessed the rise of the student game more than most is James Gallagher.
Gallagher started out as a player for the Loughborough University first team during the first two years of BUCS Super Rugby's existence as a league, whilst also being chairman of Loughborough's Rugby club.
More recently, he was appointed as their ‘Rugby Programme Manager’, managing the operations of Loughborough Lightning, Loughborough Students RFC and Loughborough Students Women’s RFC, and stayed in that role for almost two years before his recent move to Edinburgh Rugby.
Having had nearly seven years of involvement in the university rugby ecosystem, Gallagher speaks to TRU about the underrated quality and the need for a bigger audience of the ‘best league in the land’, the recruitment process behind the top level of university rugby and the exciting new partnership between Edinburgh University and Edinburgh Rugby.
One of the things that makes BSR and the Women's National League (the top tiers of university rugby) so interesting is that teams are constantly undergoing readjustments season after season as a large chunk of their squad often graduate each year.
The sides at the top of their respective leagues are able to maintain their quality by bringing in fresh talent to their squads for each campaign, something Exeter University have done extremely well in BSR and likewise Hartpury University in the WNL, and Gallagher says that professional academies and school's rugby provide a great player pool to aid this process.
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"When I was a player at Loughborough, we were quite close with [Leicester] Tigers and we still are very close with Leicester Tigers, but we've kind of branched out a little bit more. We started doing that gradually as I was a player.
"We've now got lots signed on. I think we've got over 20 boys signed on contracts that are maybe in their first or second year of contract, that are partnered (with professional clubs) that come and study at Loughborough as a student and each of their journeys look quite different.
"We talk to the academies a lot and then we do look at the school game as well. We’ll talk to a lot of the big schools’ coaches as well - we’ve got good relationships with them. We go to Ipswich for the St Joseph’s College festival and we’ll talk to a lot of people at Rosslyn Park Sevens."
Not only do Loughborough actively seek out these players, but they’ll also invite them down to their University, to make sure the institution, and the club's relationship with rugby, is right for the player.
"We host a couple of what we'd call like recruitment days", says Gallagher
"They'll come in on a Wednesday or Saturday when we've got a game and they'll spend like the morning or the afternoon with us and we'll have an on-pitch session. They'll go in the gym, and they'll sort of listen to all our staff and we'll sort of put kind of a pretty wide net out for the first one so lads can come and experience the day.
"We spoke to well over 100 (potential students). A good percentage of those ended up coming to Loughborough, so it's a huge amount of conversations.
"The reality is some of them come in and they play first team straight away in BSR, but some of them come in and they play fourth or fifth team. It depends on our position, depth, anything like that, but the movement in our club is quite big."
Well over 100 BSR players have featured for Premiership or United Rugby Championship clubs and many more are in academies and wider squads so it is therefore quite clear the quality that the league possesses. However, whilst there is no issue with the standard, Gallagher believes there should be more plaudits given to both the players and the coaches within BSR from the wider rugby audience.
"We (Loughborough) have got lads that have played in nearly every Premiership team now, so I think that the clubs are showing (BSR) respect. I think that it is more with your average rugby fan that it is a little bit underrated."
"Our final last year against Exeter, that went to extra time, is one of the best games of rugby I've ever seen in my life. I've still not watched it back because I'm a little bit heartbroken about it but as a game of rugby, I would love to have watched it as a neutral. I think if that was seen by a wider audience, more people would watch it.
“It is definitely sort of underrated from a wider rugby point and in terms of what a good product is, I think it's one of the best leagues to watch."
It is hard to argue with Gallagher's assessment of last year’s final. It was a match that saw 82 points scored in 80 minutes and 41-41 sent the two sides into extra time, with Exeter scoring a late try to win 48-44.
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These scorelines are commonplace in BSR and the WNL (53 tries were scored across six games last week) and both leagues provide the type of excitement that should undoubtedly attract a bigger audience.
When it comes to getting the product out there, the former Loughborough front rower believes Cardiff Met University are leading the way in doing so.
"Cardiff Met are excellent in terms of all their home games are live-streamed, and their set-up there is incredible. They have this tower opposite where the fans stand and it’s a really great set-up.
"It is no surprise their recent graduates, I think the course they do is a sports media course, are stepping into that commentator space or producer space in the professional game. Those guys are doing an excellent job down there."
Whilst Cardiff Met’s live streams are a great start, more can undoubtedly still be done to widen the audience and grow, not only university rugby, but the sport as a whole.
"I genuinely believe it is of value on sort of a TNT or whatever on a Wednesday night. Obviously, they've got a lot of Champions League football, so that'll be a bit of a tough challenge but if there's anywhere we can get it on TV, then that would be the best way, I think," states Gallagher.
“I think rugby as a whole sometimes has a bit of a struggle selling itself. Sometimes the media around university rugby is always really negative, but it's quite often from people that aren't really watching it.
“For general rugby fans, there's definitely a really good product there for them to watch so it's just about making sure they're aware of it."
As already mentioned, BSR is a league that contains and, has traditionally contained, superstars in the making, with Gallagher picking out Mario Pichardie, Charlie Titcombe, Tom Cairns and Archie Griffin as the stand-out players from recent years.
However, there is also an abundance of talent below BSR.
Edinburgh Rugby, where Gallagher now works as Rugby Operations Coordinator, has recently formed a partnership with Edinburgh University, whose first team play in BUCS Northern Premier A while their women's side compete in WNL.
The partnership is designed to develop the players within the university and give them access to world-class facilities. The success Exeter University and Exeter Chiefs have had from their relationship in recent years has been monumental, and the two Scottish capital institutions will be hoping to replicate something similar.
"It’s a relatively new partnership," says Gallagher.
"We're exploring where it goes from here and I think all options are open. Edinburgh is a great university and obviously, we're (Edinburgh Rugby) a well-established professional side. I think the two of us will partner very nicely and be well-aligned in terms of our positive way of thinking.
“I think one of the main thought processes behind it initially is just two great institutions within the city coming together to further improve sport and the education options in the city. I think the quality in that league is still very high.
“I'd describe that league in a higher level than your academy under-18 game. Just because, like I said, academy players will be coming into that league.
"Edinburgh University is obviously a very academic Uni, as many of the top competing Unis (in BSR) are. To find that balance between sport and academia takes quite a lot of planning and buy-in from a lot of people. I know my experience of working at Loughborough and seeing how they do things and my time as a student and member of staff is something I’m keen to share.”
Having someone who has had as much experience within this format of the game as Gallagher has will only benefit Edinburgh Rugby’s new relationship with the university and help the chances of their men's side reaching BSR. If that were to happen, it would only further Gallagher’s status as a legend of university rugby.
As mentioned earlier, last week’s BSR and WNL fixtures were dominated by the attack, with an average of 8.8 tries being scored across each game.
However, this theme did not occur in Cardiff Met University’s clash with Bath University, but drama still prevailed on a wet night in the Welsh capital.
The visitors led by four points up until the last few minutes of the game, but resilience from Met paid dividends as they scored a last-minute try to seal a 15-12 win and snatch victory from Bath’s hands.
Durham University were looking to recover from their first home defeat of the season as they travelled to Nottingham University, with the hosts aiming to build on their second win of the campaign.
Nottingham’s performance was impressive, but Durham proved too strong and they scored two late tries to come from behind in the second half to return to winning ways with a 30-21 success.
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Hartpury University continued their fine form with a 33-22 win over Leeds Beckett University. They secured all five points and a sixth victory on the trot, and Dan Murphy’s side are stringing together some quality displays at the right point in the season.
Loughborough were without a win since early December, so a victory was crucial to keep them in the hunt for a home knockout tie. They departed Wales on the right side of a 33-5 scoreline - a result that inflicted even more misery on Cardiff University who have been winless since Round Eight.
Exeter University took another step closer to becoming league champions with a dominant 55-31 victory over Swansea University.
The Welsh side showed their quality at times and even pulled out to an early lead, but despite going down to 14 men in the second half, the Devonians turned it on in attack and showed exactly why they have been so hard to beat this season.
There was only one game last week in the Women’s National League as Durham University hosted Exeter University, a side that were keen for a reaction after a recent loss to Hartpury.
BUCS Super Rugby (All 18:30 kick-offs unless stated): Swansea v Cardiff, Hartpury v Bath, Cardiff Met v Nottingham, Durham vs Exeter, Loughborough vs Leeds Beckett (7pm)
Women's National Leaugue: Hartpury v Loughborough