You would be forgiven for assuming that university rugby exists in a vacuum entirely separate from the professional game. BUCS Super Rugby is proving otherwise.
BUCS Super Rugby is the top level of university rugby in Britain. Administered by British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), it was launched in 2016.
The league consists of ten universities, seven from England, and three from Wales. The Women’s National League is its female equivalent, with seven sides, four English, two Welsh, and one Scottish.
The success of the league is clear, with Ireland the only Six Nations side yet to cap a BUCS Super Rugby alumnus. Professional clubs have established both formal and informal pathways between themselves and universities.
— BUCS Super Rugby (@BUCSSuperRugby) November 2, 2023
Each individual club has their own unique relationship with university rugby. Most British sides will keep tabs on the league, hoping to discover previously undetected talent.
Speaking to the Sports Gazette, commentator Dave Rogers said: “BUCS Super Rugby gives more of an opportunity for professional clubs to keep an eye on either their academy players distributed throughout the league or to see late developing talent and give them an opportunity.
“It’s less of a gamble for clubs to give those contracts at 20, 21, or 22 than it is at 17, 18, or 19.”
He added: “Pat Lam (Bristol Bears head coach) has been at a load of Hartpury games. He went up to Durham before he signed Fred Davies.”
Top-flight rugby is often a very short-lived profession. Gaining a university degree and the life skills from it is invaluable to many players for their lives post-rugby. Of course, student rugby is hampered by the fact that each university has their own entry requirements.
Rogers continued: “Speaking to Alex Keay, who was Director of Rugby at Durham, he’d always complain that if you want to come to Durham, you have to get three A’s.
“You talk to most professional rugby players at the moment, even in the prime of their career, and they’re talking about life after rugby.”
With the collapse of three Premiership outfits last season, rugby is becoming an increasingly precarious profession. Previously, serious injury was the primary risk to a player’s job security, but now there is a real chance that a club could go under overnight.
Other clubs have established formal academy links within universities. Ealing Trailfinders now oversee men’s and women’s rugby at Brunel University, as the Trailfinders Rugby Academy.
Central to this link is the goal for Brunel to become a BUCS Super Rugby outfit.
Similarly, Bristol Bears Women announced a ‘strategic rugby partnership’ with the University of Bristol’s women’s rugby club in August.
In Wales, Swansea University are official ‘performance partners’ with the Ospreys.
Rogers said on this: “Hugh Gutsafson coaches Swansea in the Welsh Premiership. He’s a former Ospreys player. He coaches Swansea University on a Wednesday. The crossover between Swansea University, Swansea RFC and the Ospreys is homogenous.”
Another working relationship can be seen in Exeter, between the Premiership’s Chiefs and the university.
Their connection with Exeter University has produced Scotland’s Sam Skinner, as well as Wales’ Christ Tshiunza and Dafydd Jenkins. All three appeared at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
The @BUCSSuperRugby Pathway gives players an incredible opportunity to develop both on & off the pitch 💪🏼🎓
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) October 26, 2023
A less geographically inclined relationship is the informal one between Harlequins and Cardiff Met. Alex Dombrandt, Luke Northmore, and most recently, Roma Zheng have all broken through the BUCS system to land professional contracts in South West London.
As well as players, professional clubs have looked to the university coaching ranks to improve their set-ups.
Bristol Bears’ relationship with Bristol University women’s rugby team is largely centred around providing access to top level coaching at a university level. Many BUCS sides now include active players using the league as a gateway into their coaching futures.
Rogers said: “Mo Hunt is the Head Coach at Hartpury. Katie Trevarthen and Sarah Hunter are coaching at Loughborough. You’ve got Exeter Chief’s Poppy Leitch overseeing down at Exeter University.
“Jim Henry was at Loughborough and is one of the transition coaches at Northampton Saints now.”
In an age of tightened budgets, university rugby offers both a second pathway to players who might have had a chance at the top level, as well as being a vessel for clubs to create more rounded individuals of their developing players.