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The Circus is Back in Town: Let the Gloucester-Hartpury Title Defence Commence

By Claire Thomas
Gloucester-Hartpury lift the Premier 15s trophy, June 2023.

Roll up! Roll up! The circus is back in town, and you won’t want to miss this.

Last year, we were treated to a season which started with the conquering of Fortress Sandy Park, and ended with the cementing of ‘Queensholm’ into rugby vernacular – and pretty much took the direct route throughout.

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Gloucester-Hartpury looked favourites from the get-go, and scarcely wavered as they carved through wave after wave of opposition towards glory: a cherry and white crusade, with Mo Hunt (scrunchie fluttering in the breeze) and Zoe Aldcroft at the helm, a carved figurehead of Sam Monaghan stealing a line-out on the prow, and Sean Lynn – in shorts. Always in shorts – orchestrating things from the crow’s nest.

The ingredients were all there: locally grown talents, big name signings, a thunderous pack, half-backs who knew when to play maverick and when to play master tactician, a back line with more verve than the whole cast of ‘Sex Education’, and the self belief to openly shoot for the stars.

Lynn was clear from the off: his side had been tasked with finishing top of the league, and then going on to win the whole thing – whilst having a blast, of course.

The jubilant scenes at the Premier 15s final on June 24th are the ones which make the early season montages now, but this was a side who genuinely relished the entire journey – who had a hoot making history.

‘The moment from that day which will stay with me forever,’ Lynn reflects over the phone, ‘was when my wife and kids ran out onto the pitch after the game. Having my family there was pretty special. Those moments of togetherness are what sport is all about, and that was the last thing I told the girls that season: “This memory will be with you for the rest of your life. These are the good times: go and enjoy it.”’

You suspect they did. The reigning champions are known as ‘The Circus’ for a whole host of reasons: their distinctive big top-coloured kit, the flair and energy with which they play the game, the fun they clearly have whilst carving opposition defences to ribbons and pick-pocketing possession, and – perhaps most crucially – the way they relish their off-field celebrations.

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Gloucester-Hartpury were mightily impressive across the board last season. Can they be even better this time in the newly branded league- Premiership Women’s Rugby?

‘Yes – and we’re going to have to be. The standards go up every single year in this league, so we’ve been setting targets – and will continue to do so – because you have to keep raising the bar to stay competitive.’

A beaming Hunt told the TNT cameras at the Premiership Women’s Rugby launch that they don’t consider the trophy theirs at present: the group’s mentality is that they need to go out and actively win it again.

Coach and captain are on the same page here: ‘what we achieved last year as a club was making history – but that was last year. This season – now – the vision is to make sure we get into that top two: the home semi-final is so, so important.’

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‘That’s the vision, and we’ve discussed it, but now all of our focus is on what we can control. It’s about what we can do – week in, week out – and I won’t look at the bigger picture until we get there.

‘There’ll be some bumps, some highs, and some lows – and we need to pull together tight on each one of those. Everything is about getting into the top two, and then it’s knockout rugby.’

Not too much has changed over the summer, personnel-wise. Two notable names have departed – Connie Powell and Sophie Bridger – and two seriously classy new recruits – Mackenzie Carson and Caity Mattinson – have arrived.

‘She’s been amazing since coming into camp,’ Lynn enthuses, when asked about the latter-mentioned Scottish scrum-half. ‘You’d swear she’s always been a part of this squad, and having a good person like her in our environment’s only going to make it a better place. Then there’s her play.

‘Her running game’s very exciting, her service and distribution are excellent, and she fits the way we go about things.’ Hunt, Bianca Blackburn, and now Mattinson: they’re not short on zip in the West Country…

Those four transfers aside, continuity’s been the name of the game. Go and browse the squad on the Gloucester Rugby website, and you’ll notice two things. Firstly – it’s stacked. You can only imagine how competitive training is, and can’t help but be struck by the depth in each position – in terms of both raw ability and experience. Secondly – they’ve had their headshots taken on thrones.

Well – technically they’re on imposing leather armchairs, but the messaging is clear. This roster, a compelling blend of world class and up-and-coming talents – sat, elbows on knees, faces impassive – are the queens of English rugby, and they’ll take some knocking off that perch.

Plenty of his youngsters had sparkling Allianz Cup campaigns and eye-catching preseasons, Lynn says, but he picks out Mia Venner as someone he thinks has a huge year ahead.

He also discusses the return of his WXV athletes – it’s testament to the player pool he’s assembled that England’s vice-captain, Ireland’s co-captain, and Wales’ skipper all play their club rugby in cherry and white – and how it brought out the ‘real perfectionist’ in him, as a coach who places people and relationships at at the heart one everything he does.

‘They were all in different places when they got back: WXV might have been amazing for some individuals, but it wasn’t that way for others. I’ve talked to each and every one of them about it, so I’m aware of their experience and perspective.’

However their tournament went, he’s reminded them, they’ll have benefited from ‘brilliant learnings at international level. What an opportunity.’

Back from Dubai, South Africa, and New Zealand, then – and with no time to waste. Plenty’s been made of how short a season this is – Brsitol’s Head Coach Dave Ward’s referred to it as ‘a sprint’ – and no side will be more wary of a sluggish start than the team everyone wants to beat, and who’ve a wince-inducing schedule.

Gloucester-Hartpury’s opening rounds are Girls Aloud levels of ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’ – with trips to Bristol, Exeter, and Twickenham itself to navigate before the New Year, but it’s something the coaches have orchestrated before: they didn’t lose a game until late February last time out. Mind you, that was without the giant, cherry-shaped target they’re now wearing…

Lynn’s quick to dismiss that mountain as a molehill. ‘Pressure only comes if you put pressure on yourselves. That side of things has been mentioned, of course, but we’re going to enjoy every little bit of our title defence. It’s who we are: we work hard in the week, but we enjoy playing on Saturday.’

Their competition’s campaigns are already underway – Bears and Saracens laying down particularly arresting statements of intent – whilst the reigning champions, who had a bye in round one, are still poised in their blocks – with Leicester Tigers in their sights.

Head Coach Vicky Macqueen’s newbies impressed against Chiefs in their first ever match at this level last weekend (see for yourself in the PWR round one round-up), and now hurtle straight into a double-header at Kingsholm against the title holders.

Lynn adds: ‘We’re so excited to be back there, and playing for the Slater Cup makes it doubly special – especially given what the girls did at the final – donating their match fees to the 4Ed campaign. What a way to begin: we can’t wait.’

What made Gloucester-Hartpury so compelling last season was that they could win moments and matches any number of ways. They’d control territory, but be equally happy to counter from deep. They’d go up the guts – whilst knowing how devastating they’d be, should they opt to ship it wide.

They had a clinical attacking edge up one end, but I lost track of the number of times their phase play defence ended with a turned-over or held-up ball – and accompanying roar of delight from whichever hill the coaches were watching on from. They had at least two internationals in every position, but also youngsters with enough talent and clarity to step in when needed – and who seemed to flourish with that trust.

We’ve not seen them yet this year, but their squad and staff have hardly changed, and their versatility will have made them tough to unpick during the off-season.

Motivation-wise, Hunt and Sarah Beckett might not have the same points to prove this year, and the Red Roses might not have the heartache to banish, but it’s not tough to get up for a title defence – so the emotional edge is there. It’ll take a very special team to derail this lot.

By tea time on Saturday, they’ll be underway. The final contender – bristling, bright-eyed, and brandishing the championship belt – will have entered the ring, and it’ll feel like everyone’s finally arrived at the party.

Or perhaps I should say ‘at the funfair’, because that’s what we’re dealing with here. The circus is back on in town, PWR fans: prepare to be right royally entertained.

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finn 5 hours ago
Why the world needs a reverse Lions tour

I think there’s a lot of reasons this wouldn’t work, but if we’re just proposing fun things how about a “World Series” held the june/july following a world cup. The teams competing each four years would be: the current world champions The Pacific Islands The British & Irish Lions The World XV Barbarians FC to ensure all teams are fairly evenly matched, the current world champions would name their squad first; then The Pacific Islands would name next, and would be able to select any pacific qualified players not selected by the world champions, including players already “captured” by non-pacific nations who would otherwise have been eligible for selection (eg. Bundee Aki); the Lions would select next; and then The World XV and Barbarians FC would be left to fight over anyone not selected. Some people will point out that 5 teams is too many for a mid-year round robin, particularly as it would be nice to have a final as well; and they would be right! But because we’re just having fun here we’re going to innovate an entirely new format for rugby, where the round robin is played in one stadium over the course of one day, with each game lasting just 40 minutes with no half time or change of ends. The round robin decides the seedings for the knockouts, which are contested by all 5 teams in one stadium over the course of one day, according to the following schedule: Knockout Round 1: seed 5 v seed 4 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Quarter Final: winner of Round 1 v seed 3 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Semi Final: winner of Quarter Final v seed 2 (contested over 1 half of indetermined length, finishing when one team reaches 7 points) ~ 10 minute break ~ Final: winner of Semi Final v seed 1 (played as a standard 80 minute rugby match) for the round robin, teams would name a 15 man starting lineup and a 16 man bench. Substitutions during games can only be made for injuries, but any number of substitutions can be made between games. The same rules apply for the finals, except that we return to having a regular 8 man bench, and would allow substitutions as normal during the 80 minute final.

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