'Where History Begins' - With the league title in the bag, can Loughborough do the double?

The road to finals day at Saracens' StoneX Stadium begins for Loughborough this week
©BUCS Super Rugby

Rhys Edwards and Loughborough have a motto they like to stick by: 'Where History Begins'.

It is a mantra that one of the most prestigious sporting institutions prides itself on, and one which feels very apt at this moment in time.

Edwards - alongside head coach Martin Webdale - recently guided Loughborough's 1st XV to their maiden BUCS Super Rugby league title. It represents their first 'domestic' crown since 2016 and now the men in purple are targeting a historic BSR Championship, with the knockouts getting underway on Wednesday.

Going into the final round of league action two weeks ago, it was between Loughborough and current BSR Championship holders Exeter to see who would finish top of the pile. It had all the makings of a potential nail-biter but after an intense 80 minutes against Cardiff Met University, it was the Midlands side who eventually prevailed.

"The achievement of winning the league is a big thing for us," Director of Rugby Edwards tells TRU. "Since BSR happened, we hadn't won the league so that in itself was a big focus.

"We talk about 'Where History Begins' and you think of the quality of all the other sports connected to Loughborough. You look in the gym sometimes and you see Sarah Hunter lifting weights next to Adam Peaty and then some heavyweight boxing champions of the world, it is a great place to come and just thrive.

"Loughborough has got a great reputation for sport and for its academics as well, but probably hasn't been pushing the heights of that rugby reputation a little bit. Three or four years ago when we sat down and looked at what we wanted to try to do, BSR was certainly at the forefront of that."

Despite the departure of former coach Scott Sneddon, who took up an opportunity with the Scarlets earlier in the season, Loughborough continued to work towards their goal.

After only ever finishing as high as third in BUCS Super Rugby and making it as far as the semi-finals last term, their shift in mindset to put more of an onus on the student game - as well as balancing their commitments in National League Rugby - has reaped its rewards.

"Yeah, it is probably a focus thing," Edwards admits. "Historically, Loughborough has been a huge player in university rugby. The fact we have got a National League programme and a BUCS programme is great, but we probably neglected and took our eye off university rugby.

"We reflected on the fact we wanted to stay current and we said that our profile as a university is that if we take BSR seriously, we need to make sure we focus on it.

"Since then, we have actually paid attention to it and I think we have really had a focus around giving opportunities to players but also performing around university competitions. When the chips are down, we have been able to focus on BSR which has been nice considering we hadn't really done that."

The subject of 'focus' funnels down to Loughborough's last six games of this season. After suffering just their fourth defeat of the campaign away to Nottingham at the end of January, Exeter's win at home to Cardiff Met added an extra spark to the title race but Edwards' troops kept their cool.

"Doing well in the league was one focus but actually, the opportunity it could present us for the rest of the season was something we recognised with four, five games to go," Edwards says.

"You could say that Nottingham game was a bit of a leveller for us. It showed you can't take things for granted. To be fair to them, they beat us fair and square that day but it also gave us the opportunity to reflect on staying in the moment and staying in control of what we were doing. That probably spurred us on.

"We knew going into the last game we were one point clear of Exeter and we knew full well Exeter would be gunning for a bonus-point win [away at Bath] so it would have been quite easy to chase that bonus-point win. We knew we had to focus on performing to get the win and if we got that bit right, we would give ourselves the opportunity to get that bonus point win as well which we did."

Digging deep and showing character is reflected in their run to the title. A quick glance at Loughborough's results across the course of the last two months reveals they had an average winning margin of just eight points. 

That gritty attitude was a factor in them finishing above 2021/22 league champions Durham as well as Exeter, and Edwards feels that can only breed confidence heading into their BUCS Super Rugby quarter-final against Nottingham.

"The league is a long campaign," says Edwards. "You don't win or lose it on one game but certainly what we have shown over this campaign is that we have been in the fight. We finished fourth last year but I think the character around that is probably the point of difference for us this year.

"It [finshing ahead of Exeter and Durham] is a reassurance that when the chips are down, we can compete and if anything, we can come out the other side of it. I think that only adds a bit of confidence if anything that going into the knockouts, we have got the capabilities of actually being able to go as far as we can."

During our conversation, we also touch on the influence of Sarah Hunter at Loughborough - with Edwards heavily involved with the Allianz Premier 15s side - while current England male internationals Freddie Steward and Dan Kelly are some of the other star names who have also walked the corridors of the university.

But now, Loughborough are hoping a new chapter of history is about to begin.

With talents such as fly-half Charlie Titcombe amongst their ranks, this current crop of players have an opportunity to take their place in Loughborough folklore.

"Look, the boys would have had a good night after winning the league but we know it is only half of the job in terms of the opportunity," Edwards concludes.

"Finishing well in the league means you get a pretty clear knockout so we have got a quarter-final and a semi-final which are at home if all goes well so we are pretty focused on reaping the rewards of a hard season, doing well and hopefully going out there and finishing the job."