If we all wanted to see wider competition for the top places in the Tyrrells, hopes were dashed before the first round by the Harlequins’ signings. They were determined to overturn the results of the previous two finals, so they opened the door to five more international stars. Amy Cokayne (RAF and Wasps). Lagi Tuima (Bristol), Claire Rollie (LMRCV), Sarah Beckett (Waterloo) and Giada Franco (Colorno), though Tuima didn’t appear at all.
Saracens were less active in the transfer market, but they knew they already had a squad to take on all comers.
Other clubs added new names to their rosters, but only Loughborough Lightning had enough stars to give hope of claiming the end-of-season trophy.
Quins’ acquisitions helped them put up Tyrrells’ second century of points (Saracens’ beat Worcester 105-0 in the first year). With that 101-0 drubbing of Richmond in the first round, much of the competition’s sense of drama evaporated. The top clubs were going to wallop the tail-enders just as before. Only a few contests were going to prove real tussles. There have been 6 (out of 49) with margins of 7 points or fewer.
It was probably inevitable that London-based clubs would dominate the scene. During the fourteen years of the Premiership, a club outside London (Worcester) one just once. This monopoly has not been mirrored in the men’s game though.
New faces appeared at all levels. New coaches were appointed at Richmond (Mike Panoko) and Worcester Warriors (Jo Yapp); Justin Loveridge was elevated to Head of Programmes at DMP Sharks with Tamara Taylor moving in as Co-Head Coach. Rhys Edwards was advanced to Director of Rugby at Loughborough. Sean Lynn will take over as new Head Coach at Gloucester-Hartpury in January 2020, when Susie Appleby switches to Exeter to oversee moves to bring this new enterprise into the Tyrrells fold.
New captains were appointed, though there have been adjustments since: Mo Hunt at Glos-Pury; Hannah Field at Richmond, Lyndsay O’Donnell at Worcester and the Canadian Mackenzie Thomas at Sharks. The preference for co-captains has continued to thrive in some clubs, Bristol and DMP to the fore.
Two clubs changed their names: Quins Ladies became Women and the Valkyries were transformed into Warriors.
We had to get to new uniforms, not least with the Bears. But their 2019 kit – the colours far from Bristol’s traditions – hasn’t brought the hoped-for success. Richmond often appeared in traditional red and yellow, but without the black or the familiar stripes. The change has had the same effect as with Bristol.
Jade Wong, Alex Zdunek and Rachel Laqeretabua all left Richmond for Saracens during the autumn session. Anna Caplice went to Quins. These moves help to explain the position Richmond find themselves in. Their single victory came against Worcester before Jo Yapp took charge at Sixways. Will they complete the double when the two clubs meet again at home?
The Shape of Things to come
The other side with a single victory, Firwood Waterloo, look the most likely club to suffer the direct consequences of the end-of-season reorganisation. They were one of three successful applicants who came from outside the Premiership (the other two were Gloucester-Hartpury and Loughborough Lightning), so their inability to make headway at elite level is not so surprising. But their likely disappearance brings problems for the RFU. It was their stated desire to have a regional balance among the ten clubs. The nearest equivalent to Waterloo would be Sale Sharks who set up a women’s section ‘Sale 1861’ in 2018. With the strength of an established premiership club behind them, they are in a promising position – except that the fixtures they are currently playing fall a distance behind the standards constantly on show in the Tyrrells.
That is a recurrent theme. The only way incoming clubs can hope to attain the necessary standards is to import players from other elite clubs. Sixty players is a very large number to acquire, and the second team needs to contain players well able to slip into the firsts when needed.
So the fear must be that any newcomers next season will need to poach. It happened on a large scale in the first season, 2017-8. It would be disquieting if that process was repeated.
Exeter Chiefs and Newcastle Falcons are the two other clubs setting up women’s sections with a view to applying for membership. Where do they get their players from? Newcastle started out as a invitational side. They have links to Newcastle University, but that leaves them a long way short of all the requirements laid down by the regulations. Their most likely source of talent comes from down the road at Darlington. The Sharks may or may not receive an invitation to throw their lot in with them with unalloyed pleasure. Their own stadium, the Arena, is much larger than Newcastle’s Kingston Park, but a big empty stadium doesn’t help create excitement.
As one of the two extreme options open to the RFU, four established clubs will be relegated and four newbies welcomed; at the other there will be no change. In the former case we would be likely to see wholesale player transfers.
In the latter case, will a club like Exeter be prepared to spend three more years as love locked out? I attempted to read the runes on them before the start of the season.
It is not as if there will suddenly be an influx of up to 240 players of the requisite standard to replace four relegated clubs. No, it is far more likely that at least some of the bottom four will be retained. And if the newly established women’s sections like Exeter and Sale are not admitted, what will be the cost to them? They can’t reapply for admission for three seasons.
The cautious bet would be that a maximum of two clubs would be cast into outer darkness. That would still leave at least one of the three hopefuls outside in the cold.
As spectators have been heard to say: ‘Richmond relegated? Surely not!’ but stranger things have happened. It would be ironic if a five-times winner of the old Premiership should be relegated, but as we move into an ever more professional environment, sentiment will count for less and less.
And the rest of this season
In the meantime, how will this third season work out?
Only two rounds can be squeezed in between the New Year and the Six Nations, but they could yet be make-or-break for clubs with ambitions or nerves.
Until Round 9 Quins carried all before them. Then came the unwelcome repeat of two finals. Saracens recovered to down them by six points. It is still possible for Quins to win the league, but – put simply – they will have beat Sarries away, once and for all, and with a bonus point. It is unlikely that any other club will manage to take points from either of them. Lightning will get closest, as they did in the nail-biting defeat 24-28 to Saracens. But it’s hard to imagine them beating Quins 41-17 again as they did last year.
DMP have made a decisive move up the table. Worcester will want to continue their recent advance under Jo Yapp’s tutelage. Bristol have fallen away disturbingly. Will Gloucester-Hartpury be able to go a step or two further and claim a second place in the play-offs? Wasps now lie a full nine points behind them. So long as they can retain their current form under Sean Lynn, they should be sure of finishing in the last four.
The new decade promises plenty of thrills and spills. The spills may be dramatic.
Some results to ponder over:
Waterloo beat Richmond
Bears beat Lightning
Warriors beat Bears
Sharks beat Bears
Sarries beat Lightning by 4
Quins 101 Richmond 0
Quins 81 Waterloo 0
Lightning 91 Waterloo 0
The game of the season thus far: Quins 27 Saracens 33
These are the comparative positions at Christmas 2019 and 2018. Saracens and Richmond both have a game to play in this season’s programme: