By Louis Edward, Digital Sports Editor
Most of us find it hard enough to focus on our degrees and keep up with work. Imagine having to do it while also competing in the top flight of English club rugby week-in week-out.
I sat down with Phoebe Murray and Ella Lovibond who, while going to lectures and revising for exams, have also been playing key roles in the Bristol Bears team that is reaching new heights. We talked about the progress the Bears have made in the last few years, finding a balance between university and rugby, and working towards putting on the England shirt one day.
'Last year, we did really well. We achieved top four and got to the semi-final, which was our goal. But now the goal is stepped up a bit, and our goal is to win the league.' Centre Phoebe Murray is one of the longest-serving members of the Bristol Bears squad despite only being 23.
She is a leader in the team and one of the top players and try scorers of the last few years. She has seen the team completely transform in her five years from one that struggled to get training time on the pitch and in the gym, to one that is now being integrated into a professional environment and going toe-to-toe with the best in the country.
Following the women’s squad moving into the High-Performance Training Centre this summer and the renewal of Head Coach Dave Ward’s contract, Murray believes the pressure is now on.
'I think last year, teams probably didn't expect us to do as well as we did. Whereas this year, we’ve probably got a bit of a target on our backs. I think this year it's going to be even harder. But it's just a challenge that we’re excited to start.'
Training now consists of at least three sessions per week during the evenings, with players able to do daytime training as well if they can make it. For Murray, the fuller schedule means trying to find a fine balance between rugby and the final year of her medicine degree at UoB.
'Typically, I'll probably get to placement for about half eight. Then, I'll be on placement through to lunchtime at one o’clock. I start training at about half two where we do a speed session, a gym session, and a skills session.'
'Come the evening time, we've got a unit session and team training. So, we don't finish here until about half nine at night. I don't get home until about 10 o'clock at the moment. And then back into it the next day.'
Murray said this kind of schedule has taken time to adapt to. 'Personally, I'm very good at prioritising things. I'm very happy to say no to things that are going to detriment myself.' For her, separation has been key. 'There are probably two sides to me that I can switch on and off. So, I'm on placement, I'm in hospital, and I’m literally solely focusing on that and don't really think about anything else.'
'As soon as I step across into rugby mode and come to the training centre, then I'm just thinking about rugby. There's not much crossover of me worrying about one whilst I'm at the other.'
Unfortunately, the reality is that, at club level, rugby is still years off from becoming professional. But the England national team have been fully professional since 2019, with more and more opportunities to be paid at the highest level of 15s and 7s rugby becoming available every year. Ella Lovibond, fullback for the Bears and third-year engineering design student, had a taste of this over the summer and is hungry for more.
She was called up to train with the England squad for their exhibition matches at this year’s London 7s despite not having a lot of 7s experience before.
'It wasn’t a full contract, but that showed me a bit more of a professional environment. It was such a big event. The chance to run out at Twickenham in an England shirt – it’s pretty rare. And I got a try as well, so life goals complete.'
The summer holidays gave Lovibond an opportunity to focus solely on her rugby, without having to think about any pesky uni work.
'In summer, I was on the full-time program. I was doing daytime sessions as well as the evening stuff. But when uni started, I said to Dave [Ward] that I can't do both – my lectures finish at four or five and training starts at two. I need to prioritise uni, and he was perfectly happy with that', explained Lovibond.
Balancing two work lives is hard but balancing two life ambitions seems to add another layer. 'I really struggled with it first and second year. I think last year I did a bit too much rugby; not enough studying. At the moment, I want to see how far I can get with rugby. If I finish uni and I don't get a professional contract, I will still do engineering. But it's not my main goal right now. I want to be starting every weekend and I do want to become professional.'
Murray also said that summer may have given her a better glimpse into her ambitions going forward.
'The dream of mine was that I'd be a professional athlete. I experienced it over the summer holidays when I didn't have uni, and I'm just training. I absolutely loved it this summer. Obviously, I can't graduate and then not work because I won't be able to afford to live. It's knowing that medicine is there forever, so I don't need to dive fully into that yet. The ultimate goal of playing in an England shirt is always top for me – I’ll never be satisfied until that. But until that happens, I've got to keep my level head on.'
The Rugby World Cup is taking place in New Zealand right now, with England looking like clear favourites amid a 27-match win streak. International games are now sell-outs and next year’s Six Nations looks to be the biggest yet after a World Cup boost. The Bears kick off their Allianz 15s league campaign on 19 November at Ashton Gate and will take part in a thrilling double-header with the men’s team versus Harlequins at Twickenham Stadium on 27 December.
It promises to be a very exciting season for the Bristol Bears women, so get involved in any way you can if you want to see the game grow.
Featured image: Aaron Sims