Hartpury RFC had the chance to take their skills and speed to the next level today as they faced the stars of England Rugby.
A squad of around 15 players and coaching staff left Hartpury early this morning to take part in a training session with Eddie Jones’ senior England side at Pennyhill Park. After a light breakfast and a briefing from the England head coach, they were put through their paces by England and Hartpury’s coaching staff.
For the past two seasons, Hartpury RFC have assisted England with their RBS 6 Nations preparations but this is the first time they have been asked to train with the team during an Autumn Test Series – the Old Mutual Wealth Series matches.
First up for England will be South Africa on Saturday (12th November), followed by Fiji on the 19th and Argentina on the 26th. Their final autumn international of 2016 will be against Australia on 3rd December. And Hartpury will provide the training opposition every Thursday from now until the end of the Series.
The RFC players came up against a familiar face among the Red Rose ranks in Jonny May, who only graduated from Hartpury University Centre last year with an Honours degree in Sports Business Management. The Gloucester Rugby winger has been named in the England starting line-up for Saturday, now fully fit after his knee injury.
Mike Haley and prop Ellis Genge – more products of the Hartpury talent line which has shaped more than 150 rugby internationals in the last 10 years – were among Jones’ initial picks but failed to make the final cut, so were not involved at Pennyhill Park.
The England squad came up against some of Hartpury’s finest student rugby talent too, including Harlequins winger and Lithuanian international, Jonas Mikalcius, and Kai Little – a former England Under-18s prospect, who only started his return from an ACL injury two weeks ago to now be faced with the might of England!
The winger said: “I’ve not played a game for 14 months and to come straight into this, I felt I was playing catch-up a bit but it was really good. The excitement was incredible. I woke up at 5am before my alarm just shaking!
“These are the top end of the sport and we’re aspiring to be these guys. It’s great to see how they play and where we need to aim. This was a step-up again from being involved with England Under-18s again. Everything is so much faster. You don’t have time to think half the time, you just act on instinct.”
While the Hartpury coaches will have been keeping an eye on Little to monitor his fitness on his return after injury, all eyes seemed to be on Mikalcius with representatives from the Quins’ set-up watching the session.
He said: “I didn’t feel any additional pressure. You just have to do your normal stuff you do when you’re training. At the end of the day, I want to be playing with the detail these players have so I want this.
“Every year, England improve. They have a lot of speed running off the ball and they look even sharper than the last time. It’s much more tempo and intensity than we’re used to but every time we leave, we try and incorporate some of what we’ve learned into our training. Being here is inspirational.”
Hartpury RFC will now head into their away clash at Old Albanians on Saturday, bidding to make history by claiming an 11th consecutive bonus point win and stay clear at the summit of National League One. The University Centre side and Under-18s firsts are also unbeaten in the new BUCS Super Rugby league and the AASE League respectively.
With four England sessions to provide players for, Barnes will rotate who goes to Pennyhill Park each week, depending on BUCS fixture commitments and team selections
Hartpury Director of Rugby, John Barnes, added: “The players enjoy it and look forward to it. These are the top players in the country, so for our guys to train and play against them shows them how they need to develop to move on. It encourages the guys who want this to try and get there.”
Hartpury Principal, Russell Marchant, said: “We’d like to thank England Rugby for again giving our squad the opportunity to train with them. It’s an incredible opportunity, especially for our students experiencing it for the first time.
“So many of our talented young rugby players are working hard to one day have the opportunity to pull on an international jersey themselves. This trip to Pennyhill Park will be an inspiration to them to push on to achieve their dreams, particularly with former students in the England senior squad for this Autumn Series.”