Last week’s news that Hartpury old boys Jonny Hill and Louis Rees-Zammit had been included in the British & Irish Lions squad to visit South Africa this summer was clearly great for the players, but also a source of deep pride for the Hartpury institution as a whole.
Having seen Alex Cuthbert (2013) and Ross Moriarty (2017) tour with the Lions previously, we have had the experience before, but to have two Hartpury ‘products’ selected – and arguably a couple more in contention – is uncharted territory for our Rugby Academy, which was formed 20 years ago.
Both Hill and Rees-Zammit spent two full seasons in the Hartpury AASE (now ACE) set-up and – perhaps unsurprisingly given Hartpury dominance at this age-grade – both were double championship winners.
Hill also went on the play a number of games for Hartpury RFC, in our National League days, and there may have been some expectation that Rees-Zammit would have done the same – had he not made such an immediate impact in first team rugby at Gloucester!
RFC Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, had plenty of opportunities to watch both players during their development at Hartpury, so who better to ask for some response to their call-ups?
“Jonny’s selection came as a little bit of a surprise to me and I’ve no doubt that there were a few other people in the same boat,” he said.
“Would they have put Jonny Hill in a Lions squad, ahead of some of those who have missed out? Possibly not.”
“But once you start to think about the justification for it you can see that, particularly in the past two or three years, he has done absolutely brilliantly.”
“He’s established himself in one of the best teams in the country at the moment – he’s getting picked every week for the Chiefs – and he’s certainly justified his selections by England.”
“He was up against players like Tadgh Beirne and Jonny Gray for that Lions slot, but Warren Gatland and his coaches have gone for Jonny, so fair play to him.”
“It’s great news for him and it’s great for us here at Hartpury.”
“In the two years since he left Hartpury he has literally hit the ground running. He’s making all the headlines and scoring all the tries. He’s made his Welsh debut and, again, he’s gone flat out – scoring tries and showing everybody how quick he is.”
“But it’s not only about his pace. It’s great to see just how much is overall game has developed. He’s always had the wheels, but now his aerial game is very strong – my guess is that Jonny May has been able to help him a lot in that area, as it’s something that he has also worked hard to develop over the past few seasons”.
“So, no surprise at all that he made the squad and he must have real chance, now, of making that starting line-up. He’s the sort of player that can make something from nothing, as we’ve seen plenty of times with Gloucester, and he’s got the sort of pace that the South Africans will have to be very wary of.”
Touching on his old club, Gloucester, Cornwell also had some good words for another former Hartpury student, Cherry & Whites skipper, Lewis Ludlow.
“Wow, he is really leading that team by example at the moment,” he said.
“Again, if you’d have said to me two years ago that he’d be the Gloucester skipper and being mentioned in connection with an England call-up, I’d have thought ‘I’m not so sure’, but if he lacks anything as a player – and I’m not suggesting that there is much – he more than makes up for it in effort, commitment and leadership. He’s worth his weight in gold to that team right now.”
All three players are leading examples of the talent coming out of the Hartpury rugby pathway, which saw five of the countries featuring ex-Hartpury students in their recent Guinness Six Nations squads and with a multitude of old boys now performing for leading teams in the English Gallagher Premiership and the Guinness Pro 14.
With plenty more coming through, and a number obviously already hitting international level in the Women’s game, there should be lots more causes to celebrate in the future.