While Hartpury product Mat Protheroe is undeniably hogging the limelight on the international Under-20s stage right now, three of the college’s most talented women’s players are quietly going about their business cementing their credentials for their country.
Zoe Harrison, 17, Ellena Perry, 18, and Holly Aitchison, 18, have all been impressing for England Under-20s in recent weeks, having been selected several years young in a squad packed with 12 current and former Hartpury students.
Kicking off with a 41-12 win over the British Army in front of a good crowd at Aldershot in their first senior international outing, the trio all then kept their places for the thrilling 25-25 draw over France at Esher RFC, with Holly promoted from the bench to play at fly-half.
And this weekend (March 19th) will see them face their biggest test yet with a trip to Chartres to complete the double header against France, Holly switching to centre from fly-half for this game and Zoe switching to the bench. They will all be looking to stake their claim for selection for an England Under-18s Talent Development Group squad to face Canada in the Easter holidays.
All three girls are hoping that this will only be the start of their international journey. Zoe said: “Pulling on the England shirt for the Under-20s has just made us all want so much more.
“I was a bit nervous before the Army game because it was my first senior women’s game and it was on the international stage! I’d played for England Under-18s Sevens with Holly before and this was definitely a step-up in intensity and level from what I’m used to.
“I enjoyed it so much more as a result though and both games just flew by. It was great to have my mum and dad watching and my brother, who used to play for Wasps academy, even made it along for the France game.”
All three girls have followed a similar pathway to the top and, although they are from different areas, they have all crossed each other’s paths along the way.
Having always watched her older brother play, Zoe played rugby with the boys at Tring RFC until she was 12, and then switched to play at Welling, where she met Ellena, who now plays prop, and the pair moved through the Under-15s and Under-18s set-ups there.
Holly played rugby with the boys at Waterloo until she was 12 and remained at the club until her team disbanded when she was 14 and she moved to West Park, St Helen’s. She is now playing senior rugby for Lichfield, while Ellena plays for Saracens and recently played a part in the Women’s Premiership final against Richmond.
While Zoe and Holly are studying the BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Rugby at Hartpury, Ellena is studying for her A-levels at the college. All three are part of Hartpury’s much-vaunted AASE Under-18s rugby programme, which has produced a wealth of internationals, not least Alex Matthews, Ceri Large and Abbie Brown - currently setting the world alight with the Great Britain Sevens team.
Holly, who also plays for Hartpury’s BUCS university team, said: “I knew someone who was already at Hartpury and it was clear to me that it was the perfect place to progress in my rugby development as well as studying for a qualification. Knowing that so many girls who come here go on to play at the top level was a big draw.
“I was so proud to pull on my England jersey and play for my country in front of my family, especially my brother, who hasn’t seen me play for four years! It was my biggest rugby achievement so far.”
Ellena added: “It can be pretty challenging balancing our training and gym sessions with our playing commitments and our studies but we all get elite athlete support here – from strength and conditioning to nutrition and performance lifestyle management - which is invaluable.
“It was fantastic having so many past and present Hartpury players with us in the England Under-20s squad and really helped us to settle. It has been such a whirlwind 12 months or so for me but it really makes all the hard work worthwhile when you get that big moment.
“Now we’re all working really hard to cement our places with the Under-20s and then secure a place in the England Women’s Elite Player Squad.”
Zoe, Holly and Ellena will be part of a 13-strong Hartpury contingent for England Under-20s trip to France this weekend. Holly and Ellena are joined in the starting line-up by Hartpury graduates, hooker May Campbell and flanker Sarah Bern, former Hartpury A-level student Millie Wood, A-level graduates Lucy Nye (scrum-half) and number eight Zoe Aldcroft and current Sports Business Management degree student, second row Molly Morrissey.
Joining Harrison on the replacements bench will be Hartpury Physical Education and School Sport degree student Kelly Smith, 20 and Hartpury graduates, Jessie Hood, Anna Wolf and centre Jade Shekells.
Another Hartpury product, full-back Sydney Gregson, is ruled out this week through injury.
The senior England women’s team that will be bidding for the Grand Slam as they take on France in the Women's Six Nations this weekend also features three former Hartpury students in Ceri Large, Bianca Blackburn and Amy Cokayne, while Sports Therapy degree student, centre Hannah Jones, keeps her place for Wales to play Italy.