Whither the Tyrrells? – The plot thickens

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Now the RFU has announced the results of its audit, we can begin to see how next year’s Tyrrells might shape up.

The four clubs most likely to come under the cosh of a re-tendering process have indeed been singled out: Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, Firwood Waterloo, Richmond and Worcester Warriors.

None of them is happy with the verdict. And they include the second-oldest open club in the world, Richmond, which has also run a women’s section for 35 years and produced a torrent of England players; Worcester, who share Sixways with the men’s Premiership side and whose new Head Coach, Jo Yapp, figures amongst the most distinguished in England; DMP, who have provided the Red Roses with such starry names as Tamara Taylor, Katy Daley Mclean, La Toya Mason, Abbie Scott and Heather Kerr; finally Loo, their name ever associated with Gill Burns, one of the founding mothers of the women’s game in this country.

No matter; they will have to fight tooth and nail against other outfits, some of whom are only now, at this late hour, attempting to build an organization.

Just one of the known applicants comes from the Championship (one grade below the Tyrrells): West Park Leeds, who have been performing outstandingly well at that level. In the days of the Premiership they might well have been promoted to join the elite, but promotion / relegation has been put on hold for three years, and will remain so for the next three.

Two men’s premiership clubs have formed women’s sections with the target of joining the Tyrrells, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks. The Chiefs have the advantage of half-a-million pounds coming their way. Newcastle Falcons may well throw their cap into the ring.

That raises a central question : will the newly structured Tyrrells avoid the inequalities that were built into the first edition? The answer must surely be no.

It’s not as if the other nine clubs, whoever they are, will be able to back their players with Exeter’s financial riches. That has been a major drawback from the beginning, in 2017.

Steve Hill, Richmond’s Director of Rugby, expressed his annoyance with the way the new elite platform was developing in an interview with Fiona Tomas of the Daily Telegraph (3 September 2019). It came as Saracens and Worcester announced they would be paying their players. Richmond don’t have the funds to do so. So the RFU is overseeing a league that is basically unequal. Though the clubs are funded equally by the central source, they don’t have identical bank balances.

His complaints hold a lot of water. When Nicola Ponsford, Women’s Head of Performance, declared before the start of the season that competition would be even tighter than last year, her claim flew in the face of the facts.

In my report: Tyrrells – how is the third season progressing, from last December, I calculated that only six out of 49 games pre-Christmas had a margin of seven points or less.

The radical answer is get to get rid of the clubs that cannot pay their way; in other words, to make the league as professional as possible.

But that is impossible right across the board: of the 10 x 60 players involved, only a proportion would want to commit themselves to a (semi-) professional existence. If they did, they would parallel England’s Red Roses as the only club players in the world to be professional.

So the problems the Tyrrells venture faced at the outset are still there, and in sharper relief.

If we imagine Exeter, Sale and Newcastle all finding favour, how would that leave the Tyrrells looking? A well established club like Wasps would come under much greater pressure. They have run a women’s section for as long as Richmond and have produced an admirable line of great players, from Shelley Rae to the current stars, Abby Dow, Harriet Millar-Mills and Claudia Macdonald. Though they share a name and a history with a Premiership club, they are essentially an amateur outfit, a hundred miles distant from the Ricoh Arena.

Bristol must be in a very similar position. And the Bears are finding the going tougher this year than in the past – lying in the vulnerable seventh place at present. Though they have valued links with the men’s club, they stage most of their matches at Dings Crusaders’ ground some miles away.

If those three new candidates succeeded, three Tyrrells clubs would have to face the chop. Imagine the panel sitting deciding the matter: they could stick to a set of cold statistics: (playing record, off-the-field-organisation) and give the thumbs-up here and the thumbs-down there. Some of them might have a heart.
But for every current Tyrrells club that is reprieved, there would be an aspirant club left disappointed. West Park are already well established, and would continue their progress in the hope of promotion three years hence.

But what happens to the other three? Would each of them be happy to wait another three years for acceptance, what level of rugby would they be able to play and who would be the losers in three years time?

Forced Transfers?

In the early days of the Tyrrells Nigel Melville, then the RFU man in charge, admitted he was thinking of the possibility of moving players across from one club to another to even things up. How that would have been achieved is barely worth contemplating. Much more likely is a request – perhaps with a twisted arm involved – for clubs to amalgamate. That is a well known phenomenon in English sport.

It could involve Waterloo hitching up with Sale (quite a distance apart) and DMP with Newcastle. But both the current elite clubs would face a severe loss of identity.

Exeter don’t have an obvious neighbour. Bristol and Gloucester-Hartpury are the two west country reps in the Tyrrells; some players might consider a move further south-west, especially if there was a financial carrot, but it’s not a certainty.

If West Park got the nod, there are many players with Yorkshire roots who might be happy to move to them.

But the current standards in the Tyrrells are so high that any new club would be severely challenged to match them without poaching from established rivals.

By announcing their plans for the next three years, the RFU committed themselves to these incredibly difficult decisions. And there is no clear indication of how they imagine elite women’s rugby extending beyond 2022-3.

That date will come rushing towards us faster than an HS2 train.