As the new chief enforcer for Hartpury’s women’s rugby programme, wrestling ace LJ Adams has her eye on the ultimate prize - making Hartpury the go-to talent production line for international selectors.
While the college already boasts an enviable reputation for developing England women’s rugby senior and Under-20s players, LJ, 32, believes Hartpury is only at the start of the journey to establish itself as an international hotbed.
Equally as at home in the ring as on the rugby pitch, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) maestro LJ balances a career as a professional fighter with her rugby coaching commitments and has certainly hit the mat running since taking the reins for Hartpury’s junior girls rugby programme in August 2015.
She said: “I first met all the girls on a team building camp, launching ourselves off cliffs coasteering and climbing and camping in Cornwall, and I think they have already realised that being asked to challenge themselves out of their comfort zone is going to be a feature of my coaching!
“I really believe that the women’s rugby programme at Hartpury – at college and university level – could be untouchable. It’s had some success but there’s so much potential. I want us to be at the forefront of delivering the blueprint for the development of women’s rugby players internationally; for others to copy what we do.
“Hartpury, and the other colleges that deliver the junior rugby academies, should be the go-to feeder for the England Elite Player Squad (EPS) selectors, in the same way that the men’s academies have become. There will always be talented club and school players that sit outside the academies but we should be producing 80% of the senior and Under-20s women’s squads.
“I haven’t been working with the girls for long but there’s definitely some that have what it takes to go a long way. Of course, they all come into the programme wanting to play international rugby but it can take time to instil in them exactly what that takes and the sacrifices they will have to make. It’s not easy facing a contact session at 7am!
“Changing young players’ perception is the hardest thing; making them understand that two years is a very short window and that they will need to commit to training consistently every single day, as well as balancing that with their studies and playing commitments for their clubs, districts and counties. They need to understand they are elite athletes.
“Having said that, if they do commit, the gains can be rapid and huge. I want them to leave us robust enough physically and mentally to hit the ground running in their professional and, potentially international, careers.
“That’s about doing the hard work in the gym but also giving them a more structured playing season here at Hartpury as well as at their clubs. As well as the Rosslyn Park Sevens and a sevens tournament in Wales to aim at, I’ve lined up a number of other fixtures too. Ideally, we’d end up with a girls’ colleges league in the longer term.”
Although LJ spent 10 years playing second row for Loughborough and Leicester and represented the East Midlands, it is as a coach that she has really established her rugby credentials.
Gaining her first coaching experience when she was only 16, LJ honed her skills further at Sheffield Hallam University, where she did a degree in Sports Development and Coaching.
After stints as a community rugby coach and development officer for British Judo, she took a full-time post with the women’s arm of Rugby Football Union (RFUW) as the player development programme manager for the East Midlands region, working with elite players from the age of 15 right though to seniors.
She has also coached Loughborough women and senior men’s team Mellis, played a key role in developing Leicester Tigers’ youth set-up as part of their community department and worked with North Lincs and Derby boys Under-16s.
A move to Bath around five years ago saw LJ take up a new role as a PE teacher in primary schools. On the coaching front, she got involved with the South West senior academy women’s set-up and Women’s Premiership team, Bristol Ladies, where she has now been head coach for the past two seasons.
It also marked the start of her infiltration into the England women’s set-up, initially brought in by then coaches Gary Street and Graham Smith in 2012 to deliver specific collision work due to her wrestling background - a sport she took up at the age of 25.
“I’m hugely passionate about rugby coaching but I love my fighting too, and I find that the two complement each other,” added LJ.
“I’m a box wrestler but I’ve only been doing it for five years. A lot of the fighters I’m up against have been doing judo all their life, so I’m relatively inexperienced. My last fight was in September when I won on a Technical Knock Out in the first round against a judo specialist. I’m fighting another judo player in Swindon in February.
“I train in Bristol and I’ve got a boxing licence. I love boxing and my only regret is that I didn’t get into it when I was younger.
“I first started grappling in Leicester with the shoot fighters but there were virtually no women to fight or train with then. It’s growing in popularity and, although I still don’t have any MMA sparring partners and most of my training partners are still men, I do now train with some women thai boxers and grapplers.”
LJ’s boyfriend, Guy Lewis, is also a professional MMA fighter and a rugby strength and conditioner. The pair support each other on the MMA circuit with LJ’s fights having taken her to Sweden as well as all over the UK.
She’s also had opportunities to travel through her coaching, working with Smith and then England women’s captain, Sarah Hunter, at the IRB Developing Nations competition, delivering three days of coaching to players from second tier rugby nations including Croatia and Poland before a final day Sevens tournament – a pre-cursor to the European Sevens. She even spent some time coaching 16 and 17-year-olds in China who had been identified as having potential.