Women's National League Final - Preview: Can Loughborough halt a Hartpury dynasty?

Hartpury and Loughborough will meet in Wednesday's Women's National League final
©BUCS/Izzy Poles + Ketan Shah

Sport is never scripted but seeing Hartpury in a Women's National League final is becoming a recurring narrative.

The Gloucestershire institution have won successive league titles and are now pursuing a third straight WNL Championship when they take on Loughborough in Wednesday's finale at the StoneX Stadium.

For the past two years, Andrew Ford's side have been an insurmountable obstacle. Yes, they aren't impenetrable - having suffered two defeats in the 2023/24 regular season - but they have made the top of the university game their own.

So what has been key to their success?

"When we set out our goals for the year, it probably wasn’t necessarily winning BUCS [WNL] this year," Hartpury head coach Ford tells TRU. "Obviously winning is great but I think the real aim for us has been to grow our programme and grow the women’s game.

"Because of my involvement as a coach with Gloucester-Hartpury as well, probably one of my proudest moments this year was playing the likes of Saracens and Bristol Bears in PWR [Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby]. We had a lot of injuries at the time but seeing my BUCS girls step in and actually competing at the top level and really holding their own has been a really proud moment for me.

"Having the likes of Gwennan Hopkins and Nel Metcalfe [Wales] playing in the Six Nations, they are first-year university students. That is a massive success story for us."

‘Massive success story’ is a fitting description from Ford. The impressive programme created by those at Gloucester-Hartpury means the development of personnel - whether that be at the top level or in the student game - feels very seamless.

If you flick back to Hartpury University's most recent meeting with Loughborough in February, you get a sense of the familiarity and fluidity within the club.

Just in that clash alone, 11 of the players involved featured in last year’s WNL final, with the likes of Amy Dale, Charlie-Mai Manns and Lucia Scott also tasting the top level with Gloucester-Hartpury. Add in enthusiastic first years champing at the bit, it is a recipe which continues to reap its rewards.

And of course, Gloucester-Hartpury themselves benefit from the eco-system which has been shaped by head coach and former Hartpury University men’s boss Sean Lynn. 

Last term, he delivered the Premier 15s title to Kingsholm but Lynn’s affiliation and appreciation for university rugby has undoubtedly paved the way for Hartpury to stay at the summit of the Women’s National League.

“I think [success] does drip down from the top,” Ford adds. “Myself and Lynny are very close. We sit on desks next to each other and of course, his input is invaluable. We’ve also got James [Forrester] (Gloucester-Hartpury CEO) in there, Dan Murphy who works for Gloucester-Hartpury but also heads up the Hartpury University men’s programme so we are very close as well. 

“We have managed to have a lot more of a joint approach this year around being one club. That gets the best out of each other which I think is pushing the girls.

“I think very much the culture for us is, we play the same way between the university and Gloucester-Hartpury so being able to transition is very easy. Ultimately, no matter what team you are playing in, you are playing with a smile on your face. You are enjoying those moments together and I think it is just a great place to be around.”

Ford alludes to other player pathways being born out of university programmes and Wednesday’s opponents Loughborough are a perfect example of this.

For starters, the first XV are coached by Loughborough Lightning prop Katie Trevarthen, a regular in the Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby.

Throwing it back to Hartpury for just a second, they also have similar expertise in Sam Monaghan, Bethan Lewis and Maud Muir - all Premiership winners and established internationals - while Red Rose Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt now acts as an Under-23 transition coach.

But in terms of Trevarthen and her Loughborough squad, more and more players are overlapping their BUCS commitments with Allianz Premiership Cup or top-flight opportunities.

And none more so than articulate winger Ellen Scantlebury.

The 20-year-old, who will skipper her side in Wednesday’s final, has been on an impressive journey this season.

Building on a couple of Allianz Premiership Cup appearances last term, at the beginning of this campaign, she scored three tries in the competition and went on to make her PWR debut against Saracens back in November.

Switching back to university duty, Scantlebury's eye for the try-line has been hard to ignore leading to the second-year student starting the last three PWR games for Lightning.

In response to whether her season could have gone much better up to this point, Scantlebury replies: “No, not really! I think it has been great to have the opportunity of doing Prem Cup and coming back down to BUCS and really developing there and then going back up to the Prem.

“It [the pathway between the university and Lightning] is much more integrated this year compared to last. Smithy (Nathan Smith - Loughborough Lightning Head Coach) really doesn’t let anything slide so I really think it is good for BUCS to be in a high-performance environment.

“He also cares a lot about BUCS. I think he wants to push us and really wants to make it a good outlet for those who are on the fringes of Lightning but it is definitely a really, really good relationship.

"As for Katie, she works incredibly hard! I actually don’t know how she does it! She’s a massive part of what makes Loughborough tick and understands being in both environments. We couldn’t ask for anyone better.

“We know if you perform well in BUCS, you can go into Prem and you get those opportunities in the cup and in the PWR so it is a really good, transitional pathway and it has worked really, really well this year.”

Scantlebury isn’t the only one to benefit. The likes of Georgina Tasker, Bo Westcombe-Evans, Lucy Weaver, Kendall Waudby and Isla Curphey have also featured in PWR squads this season and the quintet will all start in Wednesday’s WNL final.

The chemistry, for example, between Scantlebury and her fellow back three clan - Tasker and Westcombe-Evans - has arguably become a by-product of the growing relationship between Lightning and the university, with the trio stepping in and out of both environments.

Scantlebury admits Loughborough’s progression to this year's ‘Showdown at the StoneX’ can be attributed to the increased focus on the performance pathway but it is also down to lessons being learnt from 12 months ago.

After falling in the WNL quarter-finals against Cardiff Met, the African Violet - who finished third this season - are seemingly hitting their stride at just the right time.

They have mustered up six straight wins - including an “intense” 38-34 semi-final triumph away at second-placed Exeter University - and generating momentum is something Scantlebury immediately points out.

“I think the aim was to peak at the right time of the season,” she adds. “I think last year we got it a bit wrong. We had a very similar team to what we have got this year but we lost to Met away. I think this year, we have sort of switched our brains on at the right time which has then ended up leading us to a cup final which is pretty crazy.

“I think we have got a roll on at just the right time. Hopefully we can just make it seven [wins]!!”

If Loughborough were to ‘make it seven’ and unsettle the Hartpury trend, Scantlebury and co would create a slice of history.

Not since 2005 have the African Violet sat at the top of university rugby. Nineteen years ago, a squad which contained World Cup winning Red Roses Sarah Hunter, Clarie Allan and Becky Essex helped them to glory so can Trevarthen's side do the same in North London?

“It is such a massive opportunity for us,” adds Scantlebury, who spent two years at Hartpury College before moving to the Midlands.

“We have never really been in this position before. I think it is really daunting but we are all really ready for the challenge so I think we can really take it to Hartpury.

“I played at Hartpury with most of the girls that will be playing! I am pretty good friends with a lot of them so it will be very interesting! Of course, I would love to beat them because they have done it so many times!

“With a final though, anything can happen. I think it could easily be anyone's game. I think with a team like Hartpury and a team like us, we have our flaws but we also have our big positives. If I am being completely honest, I think it is who turns up on the day and who wants it more.

“It is a massive opportunity and hopefully, we can walk away with a little trophy!”

But this particular piece of silverware has been under lock and key in the Hartpury trophy cabinet.

Since lifting the championship title two years ago, Hartpury have lost on just three occasions. Granted, one of those rare stumbles did come at home against Loughborough [29-17] in February but once again, Ford's side brushed it off to march into another final.

They are yet to be knocked off their perch - and Ford is very aware of that: “I think no matter what Hartpury team you play in, I think you always know there is a target on your back!

“Since we have been winning the last couple of years, that target on our back has become slightly bigger and the effort the opposition has put in is even stronger.

“I think on that point, one of the big messages - and it is very coaching cliché - but one of the big messages has been let’s focus on us, focus on what we’re trying to execute and look, we can only control what we can control. Ultimately, it is whatever team is going to cope with the pressure in the final and can execute their gameplan that they are going to put out there.”

So what about the prospect of three in a row? Can Hartpury add to this recurring script and create a dynasty?

“You hear the old adage of the second album, the third album, they not always as good as the first one but that doesn’t seem to be the case yet so far this year,” Ford says.

“I think the first bit of silverware we ticked off was that league and that is something I do take massive pride in. To go on and get this double as such, I think would be amazing but ultimately I want it for the girls.

“I think the effort they have put in, getting up three times a week, 7am in the morning, getting onto pitch, doing the work, really this is just a testament to the hard work that they are putting in.

“I know they are super driven to go and do it and I am backing them all the way. It would make me super proud to see those girls lift the trophy.”