Source: Bruce Perkins

Two up, Two down – The New-look Tyrrells

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The die is cast: now we know the make-up of the Tyrrells 2021 version.

Two clubs, Firwood Waterloo and Richmond, have been shown the exit-door; two others Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks, have found favour despite being barely formed. As I suspected, the changes are limited to two, removing any chance of Championship clubs making it to the elite level.

It is a bitter blow for Richmond and Firwood Waterloo. Of the two, Loo were the more predictable. They had come up from the lower reaches and weren’t in a good geographical position to add to their playing strength. Their response to the bad news is typical of their warm-hearted approach, wishing all the elected clubs the best for next season.

For Richmond this is an even worse outcome. As I wrote last December: ‘…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 it has come to pass.

As a major contributor to women’s rugby for 35 years and the provider of many dozens of England players, they may feel they have been dealt a bad hand. But it has to be admitted that they have not made best use of their privileged geographical position in south-west London. All through the three seasons of the Tyrrells their gates have remained disappointing, with little apparent effort made to increase their support.

They have been quite unable to gain major players to their ranks, partly through their inability to raise funds. It remains to be seen what progress they can make over the next three years. But the auguries for an immediate return (that is, in the 2023-24 season!) don’t look promising.

The two new entrants

The two market-leaders, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks have proved to be the only Premiership clubs to gain acceptance. They are overjoyed.

Their most significant statement comes from the Sharks: ‘There will be a host of positions available within the new Sale Sharks Women’s team, and if you are interested in playing, coaching, administration or volunteering, please contact…’

That hardly sounds like a club ready to launch into probably the strongest league competition in the world. Each of the categories mentioned here formed part of the criteria by which applicant clubs were assessed. The RFU must have been certain that the club already possessed the requisite numbers of players, coaches, administrators and volunteers, otherwise they would not have been chosen.

Where do they expect to find these players from? Possible sources include: leading players from local clubs, young hopefuls including promising university players, current Firwood Waterloo players, or signings from established Tyrrells clubs. Only the last two categories will include players of the requisite standards; and Loo’s players managed only 6 wins in a total of 48.

They become the only club to share a ground with a major rugby league side, Salford City Reds.

Exeter Chiefs report: ‘Now, Susie [Appleby] and Amy [Garnett] can really start to kick on and get on board all those players they have been chatting to and interviewing over the last few months all signed up and ready for next season.’

It will be interesting to see who they have been talking to and who will sign on. Under Jo Yapp’s tutelage Exeter University have been very strong in recent seasons, providing England with players like Amber Reed, Lagi Tuima, Caity Mattinson and Clara Nielson and many more in the Tyrrells. It is to be hoped that Appleby won’t need to raid Gloucester-Hartpury’s store of fine young players that she helped develop.

Both clubs have been very lucky in the decision to abandon the Development team league. That reduces the number of players they need to sign on by twenty.

The general effect is to reduce the total number of players attached to the elite clubs from 600 to 400. No doubt that will benefit the national side in the long run, but it also means that at least 17 players per club will not get a game in each round. The chances are that squads will increase from 22 to 23 to narrow that gap, and bring them in line with international regulations.

Other Premiership hopefuls like Newcastle Falcons and Leicester Tigers, will have to bide their time.

The Established Clubs

Of the eight clubs to survive the cull Darlington Mowden Park Sharks – will both the Sharks clubs be allowed and willing to retain this name-clash? – may well have made the shrewdest move. Their tie-up with Durham University has resulted in a name change, DMP Durham Sharks, and a shift northwards, helping to reduce the chances of Newcastle finding favour. This brings the likely total of universities linked to the Tyrrells up to four (the others, Loughborough, Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter).

In a strange way, that takes us right back to the earliest days of women’s rugby in England, when most players first donned rugby boots at university. And it helps to strengthen the important ties between the younger generation and elite rugby.

It is perfectly possible that the two most powerful clubs, Saracens and Harlequins, will provide a torrent of fine players for other clubs. Over the past three seasons both have left internationals sitting on the bench, so strong was their line-up. Though club members will be unhappy to move away, it may be in their best long-term interests as they gain a starting-place more frequently.

Fortunately there has been no need for amalgamations beyond DMP’s link to Durham.

Geographical Balance

The new set-up makes for a marginally better spread of clubs around the country. The deep south-west is now covered; London reduces from four to three (did I hear distant cheers?); the Midlands retain two representatives, one west, one east); the north retains two in Sale Sharks and DMP, though there is many a mile set between them.

It means that overall journey times will increase. That has proved a considerable drag on players’ enjoyment. Long coach journeys will become even longer, making the likelihood of home wins even stronger.

With only ten clubs involved, large tracts of the country are left marginalised. That is inevitable. So regions like East Anglia, the south coast, the central Midlands, the far north-west and Yorkshire remain deprived.

An improved Tyrrells?

Promotion-relegation has become an even more heated topic under the present ban on sport. At least the RFU has provided a clear two-up, two-down provision for 2021.

Once we have got over the pain of seeing familiar faces disappear from view, the future looks bright. The new-look league can only serve to raise the Red Roses’ standing in the world; it should also improve the overall level of elite club rugby. We can look forward to cascades of transfers. There were torrents of them in 2017; the following season brought nearly as many. Now, with the disappearance of the Second XVs and two major clubs, a new game of musical chairs will bring many an unexpected look to team line-ups for Round One next season.

Let’s hope it will take place on time with the current plague left behind as a bad memory.