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The incredible rise of Hartpury – the student side that breeds superstars

Jonny May playing for England in the 2018 Six Nations (left) and, nine years earlier, for Hartpury

Some of the opposition attempted to level the playing field.

“One club would flood the changing rooms so we would have to get changed in the car park,” remembers Hartpury’s Sean Lynn.

“At others, the lights wouldn’t work in the changing rooms, or we would be given a tiny broom cupboard with the heaters on full blast to make it like a sauna.

“It got really competitive.”

Hartpury College RFC’s inaugural match in 2004 was a 16-10 defeat to Smith’s Industries.

But Hartpury did not lose again for another five years.

In 2017, less than 13 years after that very first match against Smiths, they secured their ninth promotion, winning all 30 of their National League One matches to complete a rise from Gloucester Three North – one of the lowest rungs on the league pyramid – to the Championship, just one tier off the top of the English game.

Hartpury’s route to the Championship
Division Tier of English rugby First season in division
Championship Two 2017-18
National League One Three 2014-15
National League 2 South Four 2011-12
National League 3 South Five 2010-11
South West One West League Six 2009-10
Western Counties North League Seven 2008-09
Gloucester Premier League Eight 2007-08
Gloucester One Nine 2006-07
Gloucester Two 10 2005-06
Gloucester Three North 11 2004-05

Hartpury are very different to the teams they were rubbing shoulders with in their early days.

It was set up to give the college’s players, often talented prospects on specialist sports courses, another, very different sort of rugby from their usual student opposition.

Lynn was at Hartpury in those early days and remembers the culture clash as young bucks came up against grizzled warhorses on the club circuit.

“Whichever place we went to it was the same – ‘let’s show these students what proper rugby is all about’,” he remembers.

“There were a few cheap shots here and there and it taught our boys how to play local rugby very fast.

“They would start as freshers and leave as men.”

Some were heading a lot higher. It has not taken long for Hartpury to develop a stellar line-up of old boys.

Ross Moriarty and Dan Norton went on to represent Wales and the British and Irish Lions, and England sevens respectively

England’s break-neck speedster Jonny May, Wales and Lions wing Alex Cuthbert, sevens legend Dan Norton, Ulster fly-half Billy Burns and Gloucester’s hot scrum-half prospect Ben Vellacott are among the unwelcome backline sights to have greeted Hartpury’s opponents in past years.

In the forwards, any attempt to rough up future Lion Ross Moriarty, Leicester’s ‘baby rhino’ Ellis Genge or Italy back rows-to-be Jake Polledri and Sebastian Negri would not have ended well.

There are plenty of other names. Wasps scrum-half Dan Robson, Exeter second row Jonny Hill, Gloucester full-back Jason Woodward and Bath lock Elliott Stooke – all Hartpury old boys – have all been called up to training camps by England coach Eddie Jones.

Some don’t wait until leaving Hartpury to get their taste of international action. Back in 2008, Matt Evans played for Canada against Wales one weekend at the Millennium Stadium before turning out away at Stroud on the next.

Gloucester centre Henry Trinder, who returned to the England set-up this summer, is another.

Trinder was in the same Hartpury team as fellow Gloucester back, former England wing Charlie Sharples

He believes that the exposure to frontline, physical rugby helps Hartpury students bypass the bottleneck that can develop at Premiership clubs.

“Playing Wednesday and then Saturday you got a lot of rugby,” he told BBC Sport of his time at Hartpury.

“It was in the lower leagues and people wanted to beat us up rather than play against us. We were winning quite convincingly, but I think they wanted to take a shot at these teenagers running rings around them.

“In academy set-ups that I was involved with you had six games maximum. If you were not being loaned out or playing university rugby, that is a lot of training.

“Training is great, mixing with the first-teamers, but you don’t learn those deep lessons that you get through regular game time and pressure situations.”

Now-Leicester and England prop Ellis Genge makes headway for Hartpury against Richmond

Although the make up of the team has shifted slightly over the years, its core purpose remains. It is an open club, but 28 of the 40 players reporting for pre-season training this season were current students at the college.

“We have had some experienced players, who have brought on the younger players, but it will remain a mainly student-based side because otherwise what we have done will have been pointless,” said current director of rugby John Barnes.

After their meteoric rise, Hartpury have hit a ceiling. They are currently 11th in a 12-team Championship populated mostly by fully professional teams. But that is just fine with Barnes.

“We would never want to go up to the Premiership,” he adds.

“That would be a huge step too far financially, we are out of our league already in those terms in the Championship.

“We are still part-time, the guys will go off to lectures and a few will go off to work.

“Our main aim is to be successful like anyone but keep producing talent, that is what will drive Hartpury forward.

“Our main aim is that you leave as a better player, a better person and take that with you.”

Premiership showpieces, Six Nations cauldrons, British and Irish Lions barn-burners. In turn, there seems to be no limit on where those Hartpury foundations may take you.

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