The RFU has announced its plans for the future of its elite Tyrrells competition well in advance of the final year of its original form. It may well have taken the clubs by surprise as much as the wider public.
All ten clubs will be audited rigorously during the coming season on two counts: their ability to match the Minimum Operating Standards and their performance on the field. They will then take their place on a list from 1-10.
Then comes the scythe.
The top six clubs will be invited to re-register an interest in participating; the other four will join other interested parties (not only the two winners of the Championship North and South) in applying for (re-)admission.
A selection panel will then decide which four will be invited to indicate an interest in joining the Tyrrells. That pattern will then continue for a further three seasons.
It is surely significant that the RFU has opted for this 6/4 split. This exactly mirrors the balance of the more or less flourishing clubs (Saracens, Harlequins, Loughborough Lightning, Wasps, Gloucester-Hartpury and Bristol) in contrast to the four strugglers (Richmond, DMP Sharks, Firwood Waterloo and Worcester Warriors).
Will this new strategy help to narrow the gulf set between those prosperous clubs and the rest?
Gary Street, the immensely experienced co-head coach at Quins, understands the problem. As he said to Hugh Godwin (The i, published 26 April 2019):
‘Without doubt, in the short term, the RFU needs to help clubs with resources for next year’.
But, he argues, ‘some of the clubs near the bottom need to go out and do stuff’ They must attract sponsors to help foot the bill and build a large battalion of volunteers who are ready to do the work needed to ensure the profit Quins are now making.
He admits that the sides linked with clubs in the Premiership (Bristol, Quins, Sarries, Worcester) should have an inbuilt advantage. But that hasn’t prevented Worcester winning two wooden spoons thus far. They have at least announced the appointment of Jo Yapp as skills coach. She is the former Worcester and England scrum-half and captain who is a highly respected coach. She recently retired from coaching Exeter University, but continues to provide England with outstanding talent through the Under 20s.
Will any of the likely applicants for admission (West Park Leeds, Lichfield, Thurrock, etc) get through the grilling that faced teams in 2017? The last two both applied, were rejected, appealed and had their appeals turned down. Are they and their like going to find the competition any easier than the four clubs under threat? It’s highly doubtful.
All the current Tyrrells clubs have a huge advantage in the experience they have acquired over the past two years on and off the field.
Will the ten lucky clubs chosen for the 2020-21 season prove any less divided in achievement than we have experienced thus far? Again, it’s highly unlikely.
Already there have been transfers announced since I posted my last piece on the Tyrrells.
Sarries have acquired the services of Molly Morrissey, the former England Under 20 lock. Still only 22, she joins the top club from Gloucester-Hartpury to support almost the only under-strength department, the second row. Her likeliest partner is Rosie Galligan, herself near the start of a promising career.
By a strange coincidence, one of Morrissey’s earlier clubs was Lichfield, the club that has suffered the most grievous player-loss in the entire country.
Other recent moves include two more players from Darlington Mowden Park Sharks who have chosen to move south to Lightning: Rachael Woosey and Kat Hobson.
There is hardly one transfer within England that helps to even out the balance of power in the Tyrrells.
As the fixtures were announced for the third season of the Tyrrells, RFU Head of Women’s Performance Nicky Ponsford said: ‘We’ve seen some player movement in the off season so we are expecting the competition to be even tighter than it was last year which is great for all of us and really underlines how competitive the league has become.’
It’s hard to understand her claim about ‘tighter competition’. There’s no doubt that standards have risen dramatically, but how can the competition be tighter when the weaker sides (Amy Cokayne Wasps, Lagi Tuima Bristol, Lark Davies Worcester, Sarah Beckett Waterloo) have been further weakened and the stronger clubs strengthened? (Amy Cokayne Quins, Lagi Tuima Quins, Lark Davies Loughborough, Sarah Beckett Quins).
The pattern that emerged as the Tyrrells was setting up was reinforced a year later. Players gravitated towards the richer, better resourced clubs, to help improve their personal performance and be part of a successful squad. The winners in this movement were clubs in the south-east,, Harlequins, Saracens and Wasps. Wasps acquired a remarkable number of eminent Red Roses, Rocky Clark, Harriet Millar-Mills, Justine Lucas, Amy Cokayne and Nolli Waterman.
But, as you’ll notice from the previous paragraph, Cokayne has already upped sticks to move further west. Lucas had moved on to Lightning and Millar-Mills was injured all season. Now that Clark has been appointed a coach at Sarries, we must assume she doesn’t intend playing at the top level any more. Quins and Sarries have moved far ahead of their London rivals, Wasps and Richmond.
The only other club able to offer similar attractions to top players is Loughborough Lightning. Their basis is quite different from the Londoners’: Loughborough has been a top sporting academy for decades. It continues to offer more and more facilities and support staff to encourage players as experienced as Katy Daley-Mclean and Emily Scarratt to join them.
Back to Nicky Ponsford’s claim: how many of the coming season’s fixtures will offer closer competition?
We have got used to the top 6 lording it over the bottom four. The danger now is that fixtures involving the Big Three and the other seven will become more one-sided than ever. As early as the seventh round last year the Daily Telegraph warned of the ‘gulf in quality’ between the interested parties. (A few stats below)
This trend may help the England set-up to build a yet more powerful squad, but it reduces the competition within the Tyrrells league even further than last year’s transfers.
Ponsford’s pronouncement overlooks the immense gaps in achievement between the haves and the have-nots. Tyrrells is not yet fully professional. That means that those clubs that finished both seasons on the receiving end of painful losses have few obvious exits from their position. Any player deemed worthy of consideration for an England contract is likely to receive a billet-doux from a top-three club inviting her to join their better financed operation.
Stats to draw your own conclusions from
Here are some stats culled from the Tyrrells last season:
First margins of 40+
|Lightning 76 Waterloo 8||68|
|Quins 59 Richmond 7||52|
|Quins 76 DMP 12||64|
|Richmond 0 Lightning 46||46|
|Saracens 64 Waterloo 0||64|
|Harlequins 48 Valkyries 5||43|
|Worcester 5 Wasps 48||43|
|Sarries 48 Wasps 0||48|
|Gloucester-Hartpury 53 Bristol 7||46|
|Glos-Pury 64 DMP 0||64|
|Valkyries 0 Saracens 63||63|
|Lightning 64 Worcester 12||52|
|Valkyries 10 Bristol 50||40|
|Bristol 75 Waterloo 13||62|
|Lightning 59 DMP 3||56|
|Glos-Pury 67 Valkyries 3||64|
|Valkyries 19 Quins 69||50|
|DMP 9 Saracens 61||52|
|DMP 14 Glos-Pury 57||43|
Then some of the close-run affairs:
|Lightning 22 Richmond 19||3|
|DMP 27 Worcester 24||3|
|Quins 26 Bristol 26||0|
|Glos-Pury 40 Lightning 41||1|
|Quins 20 Saracens 17||3|
|DMP 7 Bristol 5||2|
|Bristol 18 Lightning 14||4|
|Saracens 17 Bristol 14||3|
|Lightning 28 Saracens 31||3|
The notable result in this second collection is the first, where a bottom-4 side competed well against a top-3 side. It occurred in the first round; it wasn’t to be repeated.
If clubs from the Championship or beyond join the fray, will they achieve what those famous old clubs have failed to over the past two seasons?