First indications are that the elite division will be even more elitist and divided than ever. In its first two years of existence three clubs, Harlequins, Loughborough Lightning and Saracens, pulled away from the rest to establish a superiority that was rarely endangered.
Only Wasps came close to challenging them – they finished third in the first season, but were overtaken by Lightning last year. Lightning have gone on acquiring top talent; Wasps have stalled after bringing in Rochelle Clark, Harriet Millar-Mills, Amy Cokayne, Justine Lucas, then Nolli Waterman in 2017.
The latest announcements of signings indicate that this third season will prove even more lopsided than ever.
Quins have more or less scooped the jackpot. They have acquired the following internationals: Amy Cokayne (RAF and Wasps). Lagi Tuima (Bristol), Claire Rollie (Lille Metropole Rugby Club Villeneuvois and Scotland), Sarah Beckett (Waterloo) and Giada Franco (Colorno and Italy).
When you add Rachael Burford, Jess Breach, Leanne Riley, Shaunagh Brown, the Scotts Abbie and Emily, Vickii Cornborough, Chloe Edwards, Jade Konkel and Leah Lyons to the brew, plus several other past and future internationals like Zoe Saynor and Ellie Green, you have to wonder how often some of them will actually make it on to the pitch.
Loughborough Lightning have announced the signing of Lark Davies. This is a particularly painful blow for Worcester Warriors. Davies stayed loyal to them as their captain through the days of famine – their first two victories came right near the end of the second season.
She is added to the following roster of England caps: Katy Daley-Mclean, Sarah Hunter, Emily Scarratt, Carys Williams, Cath O’Donnell, Jo Brown, Charlotte Pearce, plus sundry foreign internationals.
Sarries haven’t (yet) announced any new names, but it’s a rare player who manages to find her way on to the pitch at Allianz Park who hasn’t already represented her country. Botterman, Cattell, Clapp, Cleall, Cleall, Fleetwood, Galligan, Green, Gregson, Harrison, McKenna, Packer and Perry leave few gaps for aspiring youngsters.
No-one can blame players for wanting to further their careers on the most favourable terms possible. But these trends devalue the Tyrrells as a vehicle for exciting week-by-week contests. With the best of England’s playing strength firmly ensconced inside these three clubs, results will be predictable long before the referee blows the starting whistle.
Gradually over the past three years England’s elite rugby competition has come closer and closer to the pattern visible in France and Italy, where two major clubs dominate the scene – Montpellier and Stade Toulousain in France; Colormo and Villorba in Italy.
The cream will come to the top
The question is whether this is the best outcome for England rugby in the long term. Would it not be better if all ten clubs had a chance of winning any game?
Last year I compiled an imaginary England XV composed exclusively of players from Lightning, Quins and Sarries:
Several other test-players waited patiently on the bench.
This proved to be not far off Simon Middleton’s first-choice XV.
Now the competition for places has grown much tighter. Both Cokayne and Davies can vie for the No 2 shirt; Tuima can hope to replace Burford in the centre; Beckett can put in a real challenge for a place in the back row. Both Perry and Botterman have since gained a clutch of caps at prop. Only that one wing position is still claimed by a player who hasn’t represented her country for a few seasons, Lotte Clapp, captain of the double winners of the Tyrrells.
Hard to find more names than Amber Reed, Lydia Thompson, Sarah Bern, Kelly Smith, Abby Dow, Claudia Macdonald, Tatyana Heard and Mo Hunt who don’t belong to this triumvirate.
And next year?
In 2017 the RFU set up a 3-year term for the Tyrrells in its current unchanged form. These latest transfers may well make decisions about any adjustments for next year even trickier.
First the question of membership. Huge ructions were caused by the choice of the ten Tyrrells clubs in 2017. It even came to questions in Parliament and an independent panel to examine appeals from disappointed clubs.
The total of ten competing clubs seems sensible. A programme of home and away games fills out the season with gaps left only for the Autumn internationals, a Christmas break and the Six Nations. It makes for a huge challenge for clubs and players. And they have to fill out two teams each, as it was felt vital to include a Development side at each club, to widen the scope of the initiative.
Promotion and relegation? These are dirty words in many a men’s Premiership club. They know that demotion to the Championship is almost a sentence of death. In London Welsh’s case it was.
For the women’s clubs the consequences would be less grave but still highly unwelcome. But as the weaker clubs – DMP, Richmond, Waterloo and Worcester – fail to acquire major English signatories from other clubs and lose some of their best players (Lark Davies, Ceri Large, Bianca Blackburn, Jo Brown, Abbie Scott, Zoe Aldcroft, Cath O’Donnell, Sarah Beckett, etc), so the imbalance grows. The three clubs outside London have attracted fine players from Celtic lands, but this serves to weaken their home clubs even further. If their presence in the Tyrrells raises their personal standards, it hasn’t translated into notable success for their national sides.
One persistent problem is the chasm-like gaps in playing standards. At international level it is made plain in the Six Nations results. At club level the demands made by the Tyrrells’ regulations – full-time professional staffing, for example – mean that the gulf set between the elite ten and the Championship clubs may prove unbridgeable. Leading second-tier clubs like West Park and Lichfield would love to prove this thesis wrong, but if they were admitted to the top level, the chances are they would find the going very hard.
Some predictions for the coming season
Quins are likely to come even closer to toppling Sarries than they did in 2017-8. With their new acquisitions they must feel that their turn has come – at last.
Lightning won’t get to the final! That’s a bold statement, even reckless. When a side can boast the three best players in an England shirt (KD-M, Scarratt and Hunter), you’d think they should carry all before them. But somehow they don’t quite have the all-round strength to be sure of victories home and away, week by week.
Wasps and Bristol are likely to battle out for the next position. Both have fine players on their rosters, the Bears in particular have youngsters who are improving year on year. They have provided England’s Under 20 side with a galaxy of talent in recent seasons; no fewer than six in the recent Tri-Nations. Wasps are in danger of proving to be the eternal bridesmaids, never quite stringing enough results together to reach the top.
Gloucester-Hartpury are a case apart. They have achieved great things after starting from scratch. But this ‘scratch’ is based on a college that has produced a staggering number of England internationals, male and female. Theirs is essentially a young side, bolstered by the experience of players like Ceri Large, Bianca Blackburn and Sasha Acheson. They have quite outstanding backs, including a record-breaking winger in Kelly Smith. Can her total of 24 tries in a season ever be broken? With last year’s skipper, Zoe Aldcroft, restored to full health, they must hope that their pack can provide the necessary possession.
And the others?
For a club in an affluent corner of London, Richmond find it remarkably hard to attract top talent. It is only a few years since they provided England with a host of outstanding players. Not any more.
Waterloo have just lost their one England cap and great young hope, Sarah Beckett. She follows that well-trodden path of outstanding players from north to south.
DMP Sharks had several Red Roses a short while back, now only Heather Kerr remains. But they can use their geographical position to attract more players down from Scotland. Lana Skeldon and Rachel McLachlan are the latest to make the switch. They join their national skipper Lisa Thomson there.
Worcester, like Richmond, once boasted many England caps. The last two years have been hard for them, but their first two victories at the end of last season brought a silver lining to a dark cloud. Now they have lost their skipper, Lark Davies. They have invested strongly in Welsh playing talent, not least Jasmine Joyce. Like Bristol, they had have nurtured a string of excellent young players, seven at Under 20 level in the past year or so. If they can finish above DMP, Waterloo and Richmond, they can count that as a major achievement.
The trouble is, the coming season is likely to prove more predictable than ever. Every tournament needs the possibility of surprises or, better still, giant-slaying. Even when a game finished 40-41 last season, it was one of the top three, Lightning, who won the day, over Glos-Pury.
It remains to be seen what changes are still to come. If they prove to be numerous, we may have to readjust some of the odds.
Tyrrells Transfers (2019-20) announced up to 9 August
Tuima Bristol to Quins
Myers Quins to Toulouse
Cokayne Wasps to Quins
Beckett Waterloo to Quins
Franco Colorno to Quins
Rollie LMRCV to Quins
Davies Worcester to Lightning
Cooksey Hartpury to DMP
Skeldon Watsonians to DMP
McLachlan Stirling County to DMP