By Louis Edward, Digital Editor
Last weekend, Bristol’s touch rugby squad headed down to Guildford for the first round of the University Touch Championship (UTC). Derby wins against Bath and Exeter saw Bristol finish 6th in Southern qualifying in a great day to start their season off.
Almost half the players had never competed at a UTC before and were treated to a 4 am wake-up call to get down to a dreary, blustery Surrey. But tired eyes were lifted from the get-go as Bristol’s Cobras recorded massive 8-0 and 9-0 wins over Bath Chickens and the Royal Veterinary College respectively.
It set the stage for an almighty clash against Exeter Monsoon for the top spot in pool D. Momentum continually swung back and forth in a ferocious match. Bristol went in at half-time 2-1 down but still had belief. 2 tries in quick succession made the comeback a reality but it was their staunch defence of Exeter’s onslaught that eventually sealed the result. A 3-2 win finished off an unbeaten pool stage to qualify for the top knockout bracket.
Co-captain Lily Williams was proud of the performances so far: ‘We had some successful results, winning all of our pool games with some fantastic tries and even more fantastic defence.’ But the knockout rounds got tougher and tougher. A quarterfinal against eventual runners-up, Surrey, on their home turf proved too much as Bristol struggled to get a foothold in the game, succumbing to their first loss.
An immediate response was found to down another Bath team, putting up a big 4-0 win against Bath Sparrows, and in a story of poetic inevitability, a grudge match was set up against Exeter Monsoon to win the plate. The opponent, the occasion, the sleep deprivation; all came into play as tempers flared and the game got dirty. There were enough Exeter winks and smirks to make you burn your corduroys as Cobras limped off the pitch and a fantastic tournament finished with gruelling defeat for Bristol.
Nevertheless, 6th place in a field of 15 teams gives the club a lot to be proud of and a lot to work for. ‘Fatigue and the weather really got to us in the last game. But results aside, the spirit and attitude of the team were top-notch throughout the day, and it was a very fun day out. It was also the first tournament for a lot of our new members so a massive well done to them for really stepping up,’ said Williams.
Will Sargent, co-captain, was watching and directing from the sidelines through an ankle injury but sees a lot of positives coming from the first round. ‘There’s clearly been some shifts in standings from last year as teams adjust and a lot tends to change from before Christmas to after. So, while we want to do as well as we can in qualifying, experience is just as important as we set a base for moving forward into nationals.
‘All I want to see is people continuing to work hard in training and applying the things we learned that we need to improve on. Training and playing without expectations and focusing on ourselves will bring the improvements we want to get stronger. Everyone in the team knows what we’re capable of and what we’ve done before. Placings fluctuate. I don’t see us finishing lower but I really don’t think there’s a ceiling.’
The BUCS influx
This year, touch has become the latest sport to gain affiliation with British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS). It’s the organisation that manages the highest level of university sports that’s been around for over 100 years, and affiliation comes with some big benefits for societies.
President Max Pawlowicz explained how BUCS can help the club grow: ‘I think there are two big benefits the club is seeing now. Firstly, Touch rugby has been a small sports community. But now with the BUCS affiliation, our name is up there with all the other big sports and that's a mark of how developed touch rugby is in the UK.
‘There's so much more to the game than I thought before I joined up and it's great to see new people joining in now that we've got the recognition of BUCS. Secondly, of course, is the funding support which is just helping people say yes to getting involved in playing at tournaments, whereas before it was a big financial commitment.’
It’s a new frontier for Bristol touch to move and grow into but concerns still remain about the university’s sports facilities and how the SU helps its smaller clubs. ‘What BUCS affiliation doesn’t give us is access to the gym. The uni operates a system where you need a paid coach to get time in the gym but given that touch is an amateur sport this isn’t possible. So, even though we are BUCS, there are still limitations from our size,’ explained Sargent.
Touch’s small community means it would struggle to build itself as a professional sport. However, the university team has produced players that have competed at the top level of the sport, as Bristol students have done elsewhere. At this summer’s European Touch Championships, two Cobras – Charlotte Nichols (Ireland) and Rhys Lynch (Wales) – competed at the international finals in Nottingham. Lynch went on to lift the trophy with Wales, scoring a try as they beat England in the mixed final. So, while Bristol players are going on to play and achieve at the highest echelon of international touch, the sport still struggles to gain proper aid from the university – hopefully something that will progress now with BUCS affiliation.
Featured image: Louis Edward