I'm dreaming of a Cherry and White Christmas: Gloucester-Hartpury at their unstoppable best
There’s a saying in rugby – a long-running, cheerfully-uttered refrain – that, maybe, ‘this year… this year is Gloucester’s year’. And, based on all the available evidence, I really think it could be.
What I should immediately point out, though, is that I’m not talking about Skivington’s men here. Oh – no. I’m talking about Sean Lynn’s side. The Gloucester-Hartpury outfit who currently sit, with 19 out of a possible 20 points, on top of the Allianz Premier 15s.
This weekend, despite being shorn of two fixtures by the fact it’s currently colder in the UK than in Yakutsk, we continued to learn about the runners and riders of the new season – as more World Cup stars trickled into proceedings, and the standings churned once again. There is one thing, however, we can say with complete confidence: Gloucester-Hartpury are currently favourites.
They conquered Fortress Sandy Park in their only points-imperfect performance so far; they made Bristol Bears look stymied and porous (some achievement) in Round Two; they swatted Wasps off the park the following weekend; and, this Saturday, they did something remarkable at StoneX Stadium.
Here are some of the key numbers. They put nine tries on Saracens, whilst holding the three-time champions scoreless until the 66th minute. The eventual score line – 7-53 – was the largest defeat ever inflicted upon the Wolfpack, and Gloucester-Hartpury’s first win over them since the league’s formation. Saracens had lost just one of their 37 previous appearances at their home ground, and it was easily the #1 strangest Premier 15s match I’ve ever covered – just for the sheer ‘what on Earth is happening?’ quality it possessed.
It was about so much more than the numbers, though. It was the intangibles: the ruthlessness with which the Cherries went about their business, the variety of their attack (Lleucu George’s box of tricks is as capacious as Mary Poppins’ handbag), their emotional intensity in defence, and the way a beaming Mo Hunt told me post-game that they’d just ‘had so much fun’ dismantling the best team in the league’s history.
The rematch, on February 25th, will be fascinating. Saracens don’t like losing: Alex Austerberry’s squad will stalk across the M4 with a score to settle, and with their Red Roses back. They’re an infinitely thornier prospect with Packer, Cleall, Harrison, Botterman, and McKenna involved – although it’s worth noting that Gloucester-Hartpury managed this thumping victory without the totemic Zoe Aldcroft or irrepressible Alex Matthews.
There are so many reasons why this could well be Gloucester-Hartpury’s year that it’s hard to know where to start, so here are a few moments which seemed to suggest that – come the final on June 24th – there’ll be a circus rolling into town.
Here's the Allianz #Premier15s ?? ???? ?? ??? ???? ?? powered by OPTA Statistics ? pic.twitter.com/sHPAzGVJVO
— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) December 12, 2022
#1: in the tunnel. There’s a window of about five minutes in a Premier 15s broadcast between throwing to the commentator, and the game kicking off – and it’s a crucial one. If you don’t use the facilities in that gap, you find yourselves crossing your legs until the whole show comes off air. Thing is – I’d failed to factor in how long such a trip would take when wearing approximately forty-four layers, and so found myself caught in the tunnel as the visitors emerged. What I learned is that Gloucester-Hartpury were buzzing. Whether they were stood, hands on hips, readying themselves for battle – or whether they were joking around, genuinely thrilled at the prospect of the 80 minutes before them – theirs was a procession bristling with confidence and excitement. Twenty-three smiling assassins: about to make history.
#2: Sean did warn us. Pre-match, Lynn – in shorts, as is head-scratchingly customary – had explained how ‘everything is about set piece’ with this team. He might have neatly side-stepped a question about whether or not he’d assembled the best pack in the league (every single one of his forwards on Saturday was a senior international, so there’s certainly a case to be made there), but he did admit that this is a ‘special’ group, and the ‘beginning of something.’
With less than a minute played, Saracens conceded a penalty, and George obligingly thwacked the free kick up to the five-metre line. Kelsey Jones picked out Sam Monaghan with consummate ease, and their all-star pack began to rumble. It was slow, but unstoppable – and that’s all that counts. Hunt barked the orders as steam rose from her red-and-white bulldozer, and the ball was grounded. Five points in the bag. Lynn said the entire set-up was ‘excited’ about this one, and that eagerness was writ large on the scoreboard before the clock had even hit the two-minute mark.
#3: the beating heart of Hartpury. Ten minutes passed, and it was their talisman who doubled their lead. George picked out compatriot Jones with the flattest of passes, who found the be-scrunchied Hunt on a canny support line. The hooker timed her delivery perfectly (the handling by Gloucester-Hartpury’s forwards was sensational), and her captain flew beneath the sticks.
Earlier in the week, the scrum-half had spoken with heart-wrenching honesty on ‘The Good, The Scaz & The Rugby’ about her World Cup omission, and how devastated it had left her – from deleting WhatsApp, to drunkenly attending the hair appointment she’d booked in anticipation of the tournament of a lifetime. England’s loss has proven Gloucester-Hartpury’s gain: they’ve had their co-captain available to them all season – infectiously passionate, one of the best to ever do it, and at the core of what they hope will be an unprecedented campaign.
#4: home grown hero. By the half hour mark, Gloucester-Hartpury had their third, whilst Saracens were yet to register a score – and their errors were racking up. Two knock-ons in quick succession allowed the Cherries’ all-international scrum to power its way to a penalty, and history repeated itself. George buried it, and Jones picked out Monaghan. Only, this time, the ball was popped down to Hunt, who shifted it to George, and then Sophie Bridger hit the big red button marked ‘entertainment mode.’ It was a bonkers and brilliant score, with its crown jewel the sort of dummy which would make Ardie Savea blush. It’s as guaranteed to be ‘Try of the Week’ as it is to be embedded right at the top of the Bridger family Christmas newsletter – but there’s another reason to love it, besides its aesthetic perfection.
Bridger was making only her sixth appearance in the Premier 15s, having glided right along the Gloucestershire conveyor belt of talent: graduating from Hartpury College before captaining the university side to a Women’s National League title. For all the noise around Lynn’s starry summer signings, the work done at age group level is arguably more impressive. Emma Sing and Aldcroft were at college there, as was one of those big-name arrivals – Matthews. In fact – Saracens’ fly half on Saturday, Holly Aitchison, was a Hartpury College student: one of 22 English and Welsh players at the World Cup with a connection to the set-up. Bridger’s score was a real moment because it was a pearler, but also because it was a plucky manifestation of that programme’s effectiveness. Gloucester-Hartpury were running riot.
#5: the bomb squad. As Sisilia Tuipulotu barrelled over for the visitors’ eighth (unanswered) score, commentator Nathan Middleton asked the question on everyone’s minds: ‘what more can you say about Gloucester-Hartpury this afternoon?’ He was spot-on: it had been a stunning conquest. The tighthead had arrived onto the field just moments ago, along with Connie Powell and Cara Hope, in a body blow to the title-holders – already 41-0 down. Lynn had set his stall out in targeting the set piece, and his side had delivered: here were the women with the hammers and nails for Saracens’ Round Four coffin.
4?? of the best from Round 4??
? Sophie Bridger
? Lagi Tuima
?? Katie Buchanan
? Ellie Rugman
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— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) December 13, 2022
#6: the debrief. The red wall was eventually breached, by Saracens’ exciting young openside Sharifa Kasolo, but it was much too little, too late – and the first try scored against Lynn’s team in an astonishing 204 minutes of rugby. The full-time whistle soon sounded, and we were joined by the visibly delighted coach pitch-side.
‘The girls work so hard in defence,’ he enthused, ‘and we take so much pride in that.’ He heaped praise on the ‘instinct’ and ‘quality’ of George, who had been named Player of the Match, before promising to ‘enjoy’ the 53 points they’d put on the three-time champions. ‘There will be things we need to work on, come Monday, but it’s an outstanding bonus point win, and I’m so proud of the girls. Sometimes it’s easy when you’re winning, but we’ve come off a lot of losses – and we’ve been building something for the last two years. We’re really enjoying it.’
There’d been plenty of pre-match chatter about this being the game of the season so far. As a contest – it was miles off. But, as a performance by Gloucester-Hartpury – it was something very special. Those were just a few moments from 80 minutes of dominance: from a side who smiled their way onto the pitch, went about their bruising business, and then beamed their way – through chattering teeth – off it again.
They’ve DMP next, so look set to head into Christmas as the angels on top of the Premier 15s tree – and deservedly so. What happens in 2023, as everyone’s back to full strength, will be enthralling – but it feels legitimate to muse that ‘this year… this year is Gloucester’s year.’
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Well said James.Go to comments
Gary Graham to Carcassone from Newcastle????Go to comments