The third season of the Tyrrells starts in a fortnight and the transfers keep coming. But two big news items take precedence. First, Exeter’s long-trumpeted decision to establish a women’s section, with a view to applying to join the Tyrrells next year; second, the award of professional terms to players at Worcester Warriors and Saracens.
Exeter have appointed Susie Appleby and Amy Garnett (England’s first 100-capper) as coaches. Appleby’s move will mean a huge loss for Gloucester-Hartpury. She is due to stay with them till January. Initially Exeter will lob £500,000 into the enterprise.
Saracens will evidently pay match-fees to all their players and retainers to some of them. At the other end of the table, Worcester will offer match fees to all their players at a reportedly lower rate. These significant steps underline the increasing divisions at the elite level.
At player level the transfer-traffic remains mostly one-way, though Worcester are making strenuous efforts to acquire more quality players.
Mackenzie Carson, the Canadian forward, leaves Bristol Bears for Saracens. Jodie Mallard, the talented England Under 20 scrum-half, has also moved to Allianz Park. She must take her place in the queue to replace Georgie Gulliver in the No 9 shirt.
Helen Nelson, the multi-capped Scottish midfielder, has joined Lightning. Like Quins-bound Chloe Rollie, Nelson comes from a top French club, in her case Montpellier.
Worcester have announced the following acquisitions: Sasha Acheson, the experienced prop with five England caps, and Taz Bricknell, both from Gloucester-Hartpury. Glos-Pury may be a leading production-line for future Red Roses, but they can ill afford to lose seasoned players like these, with their head coach also moving away at the mid-season break.
The top-three clubs, Sarries, Quins and Lightning, know that their international players won’t necessarily be able to get on the field at the same time. They are ensuring that any injury-list they suffer won’t result in an unwelcome loss. At the same time, the players have taken the decision to join a top club with all the benefits it can bring, at the risk of only occasional appearances. The alternative would be probably be a more regular appearance for another club further down the pecking-order.
Since all the matches are likely to be even more carefully scrutinized this season, players know that all their match-performances will be closely monitored, however many or few they happen to be.
The Exeter announcement brings with it a host of imponderables: where do they acquire 60 players from? Do they entice players from established Tyrrells clubs? If not, how do they hope to reach the levels needed to survive at the elite level?
Two ready sources would be: first, present and past players from Exeter University, where Jo Yapp has created such a successful enterprise; second, players from the deep south-west, Devon and especially Cornwall, who in the past have had to travel a distance to play rugby of the desired standard.
If Exeter were successful in their bid, another of the RFU’s requirements for the Tyrrells – a geographical balance – might well be put in jeopardy. Two of the three last-placed clubs lie the furthest north in the country.
A hint of the problems that the RFU faces in establishing its new-look elite division for 2020-21 is revealed in three pre-season friendlies: Warriors beat Lichfield 73-12, Sarries beat Trojans 88-0 and Waterloo beat Dragons 73-7. The first two losing clubs are prime candidates for promotion from the Championship; Dragons unwillingly expose the chasm that separates a leading Welsh club from the side that finished ninth in last year’s Tyrrells.
At present, the odds seem to favour the ten established Tyrrells clubs maintaining their position, with only a tiny handful of new creations – Exeter-style – capable of mounting a challenge. And if Exeter were to fail in their enterprise, where would it leave them?