The Women's Premiership final between Bristol and Gloucester-Hartpury brings the next chapter in the life of Holly Aitchison, one of England's brightest talents


It seems hard to believe Holly Aitchison has only breathed the thin air of high-altitude rugby for three seasons, so seamless has been her transition to the Test scene. The former GB sevens talent played at centre when she scored on her 15s debut against New Zealand but occupied the ten shirt throughout almost all of the past two Six Nations championships, when the Red Roses chalked up their 17th and 18th Grand Slams.

Perhaps her goal-kicking has been a little flaky on occasions – although not when it mattered most, in the cauldron of Bordeaux last April – but overall she has been simply brilliant, her ability to create holes or take holes leaving an imprint on the tournament.

Her switch from Saracens last summer was greeted with punched-fist delight at new club Bristol, where Dave Ward has hailed her “triple threat” of running, kicking and passing.

“Holly’s a unique player,” head coach Ward told us. “I thought Amber Reed’s passing was the best in the league but Holly is challenging that. The fact they can play next to each other gives us extreme width on the ball if we want it. And if people jump out of the line, she’s going to spot that space and she’s quick, she’ll finish breaks off.”

Budding Holly has her eyes on the prize

Holly celebrates Bristol’s semi-final win at Saracens with fellow playmaker Amber Reed (Getty Images)

Ironically, Aitchison says every coach wants to change her passing technique – the high backswing buys precious time for defences – but the length and accuracy she gets far exceeds most of her peers.

Ward always believed Bristol would be a different team once she had bedded in and had time to forge that dual playmaker role with Reed. And he was spot on, the Bears’ escalating powers reaching a high point in the Premiership Women’s Rugby semi-final win at Saracens.

The ball-playing and width is there in abundance but so, too, are the power carries of No 8 Rownita Marston-Mulhearn and the mauling game that has helped England hooker Lark Atkin-Davies score 13 PWR tries this season, including a hat-trick at Saracens.

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Did you know?

Bristol Bears will be appearing in their first Premiership Women’s Rugby final. But they did feature in the 2017 Women’s Premiership final, losing 17-8 to Aylesford Bulls

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Amid this, the 26-year-old Aitchison has found an ideal habitat in which to thrive.

“I needed to leave Sarries because I wanted to play at ten. I was actually toying with the idea of going home, up north, but ultimately the facilities here at Bristol are world class and the coaching team is amazing. The standard of rugby is a lot more running-based and that’s something I wanted to add to my game; Sarries was a lot more kicking-based.

“We speak a lot about being brave and having confidence in a squad that has proved we can win. We want to take that confidence into each game, to believe we should win.”

Holly Aitchison v Sale Sharks

Carrying against Sale Sharks. Holly has provided a triple threat in Bristol’s midfield (Andy Watts/Bristol)

Growing up in Formby, north of Liverpool, Aitchison was blessed to have two mentors of pedigree. The first was her father Ian, a former Waterloo player and director of rugby who coached her from the age of five to 15.

“He was massively influential. He’s very regimented in what he wants. When I was five doing basic skills, he was very detailed in what he wanted and I think that’s still with me now. My brother is a year younger than me, so I think Dad was harder on me to make sure we were similar. I think it was better that he was harsh; I thank him for it now but I probably didn’t at the time! He’s my biggest critic but also my biggest supporter.”

The legendary Gill Burns then took the reins at Range High School, steering Aitchison and another future star, Sarah Beckett, through the choppy waters of rep rugby.

“We didn’t realise how lucky we were to have her. Obviously she was just like a teacher to us. She gave us some unreal experiences in rugby and we probably didn’t really value her advice and how much we could lean on her, because she’d been and done everything we were about to do. She’s one of those people now who I think I’ve got a really good friend out of that.”

Red Roses Grand Slam

A 2024 Grand Slam winner. With Sydney Gregson, Abby Dow and Abbie Ward in France (Getty Images)

Aitchison might have played other sports professionally – Liverpool and Everton football clubs came knocking – but she loved rugby far too much to be swayed from her chosen path.

And there is something else. She felt comfortable on a rugby pitch as it gave her a confidence that was lacking in the rest of her mid-teenage life. In a sense she had a split personality.

“I had a lot of problems with my skin as I was growing up, quite bad acne, and I probably didn’t realise how much it affected my confidence until I was a bit older,” she says. “I would have been shy when I was growing up anyway but that (the skin issue) definitely had a massive impact on how I interacted with people, what people thought of me.

Holly Aitchison with Lucy Burgess

Hugging Lucy Burgess after Bears had reached the final (Getty)

“And I didn’t speak to people as much as I should have done. I should have gone to a doctor but I was too embarrassed. A lot of my friends played sport but they weren’t that into it. They were into fashion and going out and no one had problems with their skin. I was in my own lane with that.

“So I probably could have reached out a bit more but I didn’t have the confidence to speak about it that much. I just hid it when I could. I wore make-up to try to cover it. And just tried to ignore it to the outside world. But inside I was very, very aware of it.”

At one point she was living with Ellie Kildunne and Jess Breach and even though they were close friends, she was so mortified by her skin that she would keep her hoodie up to hide her face. She lived in fear that people would stare at her or mock her.

It’s why she was a perfect fit when Clinique wanted someone to front their Game Face initiative, an educational campaign that involved sponsoring four girls’ rugby clubs and offering skin care alongside coaching. Hitchin, Aldwinians, Hucclecote and Howe Of Fife were the clubs chosen.

“The campaign was really important to me. How you can influence younger girls and normalise it a bit more. If that had been there when I was growing up, I definitely would have spoken to someone about my skin. I wouldn’t have been too shy in my own environment of rugby. I really wanted to do the campaign and invested quite a bit of time into it – I really enjoyed the whole experience.”

Past finals

2018 Saracens 24-20 Harlequins
2019 Saracens 33-17 Harlequins
2020 Abandoned due to Covid
2021 Harlequins 25-17 Saracens
2022 Saracens 43-21 Exeter
2023 Gloucester-Hartpury 34-19 Exeter

Rugby has always been a sanctuary for her, a realm where no one noticed what she looked like, only the way she commanded a game. Burns recalls seeing her score tries almost at will when playing with a group of boys and she told Nicky Ponsford at the RFU that she had a girl who would play for England one day. Aitchison was only 11 at the time.

The budding Holly was always a ten growing up, only graduating to 13 and 12 as she went into women’s rugby. “I really liked watching Quade Cooper when I was 15, 16. Most of the people I wanted to be like were tens. I looked up to Katy (Daley-McLean) and more recently I like watching George Ford, how flat he plays.”

Bristol Bears huddle

In a huddle. Bears have the highest tackle success rate, at 88%, in this season’s PWR (Andy Watts/Bristol)

The World Cup final defeat left her “absolutely broken” but a year and a half later she’s in a different head space. She’s relishing life at her new club and largely playing in the ten position that she loves more than any other. Bristol mixed it up for the semi-final, when Aitchison slotted in at 12 outside Reed.

There’s no doubt who the underdogs will be in Saturday’s PWR final at Sandy Park, Exeter (3pm). Bristol finished 18 points behind Gloucester-Hartpury in the table and lost to them in both league fixtures, albeit by the small margins of 12-0 and 24-19. It will be an enormous challenge for Aitchison and her team-mates.

“When I was at Sarries, everyone expected us to win and it’s a really interesting comparison in the mentality I’ve found,” she says. “This group is really humble, so they kind of revel in that underdog mentality and I think it suits us. If anything, it will be a positive for us. It’s a massive opportunity.”

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