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'We looked at our recruitment strategy and we went out to get the players that could make a difference'

By Daniel Gallan
Gloucester-Hartpury's Zoe Aldcroft in action during the Allianz Premier 15's match between Bristol Bears Women and Gloucester-Hartpury Women at Shaftesbury Park on February 4, 2023 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images

Gloucestershire is gorgeous. With its endless green hills and valleys, it’s a nature lover’s dream. It’s no wonder Extinction Rebellion was founded in Stroud. If you lived in paradise you’d be determined to preserve it by any means necessary. But it’s no Garden of Eden for sports fans. Though the soil is fertile, trophy cabinets remain barren.

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The region’s cricket side hasn’t won the County Championship since 1877. The top ranked football club is Cheltenham Town; currently 16th in the the third tiered EFL League One. There’s a famous annual horse race, but that’s not exactly an event for the everyman. Occasionally some locals play polo while others risk life and limb chasing a big wheel of cheese down a steep slope.

None of that matters. Not really. Because this is rugby country and the oval ball rules supreme. Except passion and support has not equated to success.

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Gloucester have never won a Premiership crown. Five triumphs in the now disbanded Anglo-Welsh Cup and a pair of European Challenge Cup victories means there are some trinkets on the mantelpiece, but a domestic league title eludes them. Kingsholm Stadium’s faithful remain unsatisfied.

However, change is afoot. Not because the men’s team have suddenly discovered a winning formula – George Skivington’s team finished 10th in an 11 team league – but because the women’s outfit known as Gloucester-Hartpury currently occupy top spot in the Premier 15s table and could secure a home semi-final if they beat Harlequins on Sunday.

Mo Hunt during an Allianz Premier 15s match
Mo Hunt during the Allianz Premier 15s match between Gloucester Hartpury and Bristol Bears at the Alpas Arena, Gloucester, England on 26th November 2022. Credit: Ben Lumley Photography

But despite their indomitable campaign so far, that’s seen them register 14 wins from 15 games, they’ve largely flown under the radar. Saracens, that dynastic force that has claimed three of the four Premier 15s available, continue to hog attention. As have Exeter Chiefs, a multinational force on the rise. Yet both languish in the wake of the West Country pace setters.

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“We don’t mind,” says Gloucester-Hartpury’s coach, Sean Lynn. “That’s allowed us to get on with our own business. We control what we can control in everything we do. We’re just focused on getting those results.

“We’re fighting to finish in that top spot. We’re just happy to make sure that we do everything right on the field. We don’t need anyone talking about us.

“It takes the pressure off the players. There’s a freedom in that. I’ve said to the girls that the goal at the beginning of the season was getting into the top four. We’re just managing what we can about us. We’re in a great opportunity to take that top spot.”

Discourse, or in this case, the absence of discourse, only counts for so much. Gloucester-Hartpury’s dominance has been forged in the hard won yards around the breakdown and in the contact.

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“As a coaching group we came together at the end of last season and recognised that we were pushing the top teams but always losing at the death,” Lynn explains, referencing his team’s most recent sixth and fifth place finishes in the Premier 15s.

“We asked, ‘Why is that?’ We looked at our recruitment strategy and we went out to get the players that could make a difference. We now have a really good driving maul. We take pride in our defensive phase play.”

With Zoe Aldcroft in the second row, Lynn has built a formidable pack through some shrewd recruitments. Laura Delgado and Maud Muir have both bolstered the front row. Sarah Becket has added grunt in the back row. Around the park and in the tight channels, the Cherry and Whites are no longer getting bullied by meatier opponents.

That has allowed their dazzling backline, marshalled by scrumhalf Natasha Hunt and energised by England’s breakthrough sensation Tatyana Heard in midfield, to shine.

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“People say to me that our backline is on fire but it hasn’t changed,” Lynn adds. “What they have is front foot ball. It’s amazing what happens to a team when they’re moving in the right direction.

“The backs have all commented to me and to each other how much things have changed. There’s a different buzz. You see it in training. The forwards go through this gruelling session and the backs are laughing and having a great time.

“They each appreciate each other. The backs are grateful that they’re getting into the right positions and have the space to do what they do. The forwards know that they’re putting the team in strong positions and that their hard graft is making a difference.

“There’s a great energy at the club right now. We’re all on the same page.”

Lynn’s ideas around the set piece and maul have both been influenced by Skivington. But the exchange of information has been a two-way street.

“George is very accommodating,” Lynn says while also name-dropping the club’s high performance manager, Tom Reynolds. “I watch a lot of their training sessions and speak to their analysts.

“The first time I met George I said that I’d love to have a catch up and learn a few things from him. He said, ‘No, I’d love to have a catch up and learn some things from you’. I thought that was great. Ever since we’ve shared ideas. That for me was really pleasing. Every single coach is always on a learning journey.”

With that in mind, it’s handy that one half of the organisation is connected to an institution of higher education. Both Lynn and Hunt are former coaches of Hartpury University. Utility forward Amy Dale, midfielder Sophie Bridger, back-rower Georgia Brock and seven other teammates are currently juggling their studies at Hartpury with rugby commitments. Aldcroft and Connie Powell are just two former players for the university side.

“We feel deeply connected to the community,” Lynn says. “We’re involved in many outreach programmes. We go out to local schools and get the message out about women’s rugby.

“Laura Delgado now helps run community events. We want to show how sport, and women’s sport in particular, can have an impact on people.”

Should this side go on and maintain their lofty position on the league table, and then go on and lift the Premier 15s title, they’ll prove the value of these aims in a county that is crying out for a champion.

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