Sara Orchard has reported on the BBC website likely developments to the Premier 15s league.
There is the possibility that Welsh and Scottish clubs might join in, for example two Welsh ‘super’ clubs. Nicky Ponsford, England’s performance manager, has been in discussions with her counterparts in Cardiff and Edinburgh. She sees the addition of such teams as a way of narrowing the gap in achievement between the three nations as well as increasing the value of the Prem 15s.
Ryan Jones, Ponsford’s Welsh counterpart, reacted favourably to the idea. But his comment: ‘We have got some talented athletes in Wales and the best domestic competition we have is the Premier 15s’, shows the weakness of his position. He is forced to call the English elite league the best Wales has.
Siwan Lillicrap, Wales’ captain and a prized Bristol Bear, was equally impressed by the idea, looking forward to cross-border competition.
The Welsh attitude has shifted. It’s barely a month since Gareth Davies, the WRU chairman, discounted the possibility of a Welsh team being added to the Prem 15s.
So would any Welsh/Scottish teams allowed to join mean Welsh/Scottish players already based in England returning home? There have always been good numbers of them, but recent transfers have increased the totals significantly.
The schedule of the past three years has been home and away games from September to March, with breaks for the autumn internationals, Christmas-New Year and the Six Nations. They are subject to change from any major overhaul of the global calendar, now under serious discussion.
The total of ten clubs fitted neatly into this pattern. An increase of only two clubs would mean a much longer season. If four were added (based, let’s say, in Cardiff, Swansea, Glasgow and Edinburgh) then the shape of the competition would alter beyond all recognition. We must hope and assume that the RFU isn’t contemplating removing current English clubs to make way for the newcomers.
For as long as the vast majority of the players remain amateur, it would add to the burden of travel. The French have already calculated the distances they will have to travel to complete the opening phase of their new competition. With pools of only four clubs, Lille MRCV take first prize with a combined distance of about 6,100 kilometres; Romagnat are the lucky ones, needing to cover barely a third of the distance.
Like French clubs, English ones vary in their financial backing. So the speed and comfort of travel can vary widely too. Once we add Wales and especially Scotland to the equation, those journeys could take on onerous proportions. Weekends might not prove long enough to allow everyone to travel there and back and be ready for work the next day.
We have to assume too that any major alterations to the make-up of the Prem 15s could take place only after the locked-in period from now to 2023. So progress would be slow and considered. The WRU has already announced first plans for reshaping Welsh women’s rugby. But any immediate steps could not involve the best players, who have already crossed the Severn Bridge. Young hopefuls won’t often have their heroes around them showing the way.
Paying its own way
The RFU wants its elite league to be financially self-sustaining by 2030.
Presumably that could be achieved only by a TV contract and by sponsorship. But the RFU still has not found a sponsor, despite Bill Sweeney’s assurances many weeks ago that two companies had shown a keen interest. And not even the Women’s Six Nations has found a sponsor yet. Television dislikes empty stands. For all sorts of reasons it expects large crowds to create the atmosphere it needs for an attractive visual and sonic experience. Attendances at Prem 15s matches are rising, but hardly far enough to win the sort of TV contract that would ensure financial sustainability.
Would these moves be harmful to English interests?
Let’s take Bristol as an example. Apart from their huge Welsh influx, they are the only club thus far to have posted a comment regretting the departure of many players from the Development side.
These are the first and last Bristol starting XVs to appear last season (Welsh players in italics):
Round 1: 15. Lucy Attwood, 14. Lilly Stoeger-Goddard, 13. Phoebe Murray, 12. Amber Reed, 11. Lucy Burgess, 10. Elinor Snowsill, 9. Keira Bevan; 1. Naomi Keddie, 2. Clara Nielson, 3. Sarah Bern, 4. Hollie Cunningham, 5. Siwan Lillicrap, 6. Ebony Jefferies, 7. Poppy Leitch, 8. Rownita Marston
Round 12: 15. Lucy Attwood, 14. Merryn Doidge, 13. Phoebe Murray, 12. Amber Reed, 11. Lilly Stoeger-Goddard, 10. Lucie Skuse, 9. Rhi Parker; 1. Simi Pam, 2. Clara Nielson, 3. Sarah Bern, 4. Hollie Cunningham, 5. Marlo Boyd, 6. Daisie Mayes, 7. Poppy Leitch, 8. Rownita Marston
Of course these sides are by no means typical of the Bears’ representation over the season, but we can see how many English-qualified players risk losing their place in favour of the eleven Welsh internationals now on their books. It places Kim Oliver in a tricky position. She wants to put out the very strongest side she can for every match. But she, like other head coaches, must feel an attachment to players who have remained loyal to the club over the years, especially the younger element who are strongly listed in two sides above. Remember, there is no 2nd XV they can revert to. Either they make the elite team, or they sit out. That is one reason why I wonder whether the RFU’s decision to abandon the Development League was the right one. ‘The fewer the players, the higher the standards’ must be the thinking. But surely it comes at a cost. Will some of the younger brigade – I think in particular of the backs – need to look elsewhere?
The dropping of the Development League means that a minimum of 20 x 10 players have to find a new club below the elite level. Every player signed on from beyond England’s borders adds one more to that number. The only counter to this arithmetic is the survival of Second Fifteens in this club and that. No doubt many players threatened with departure would far prefer to stay and play in the 2nds. But there will be no funding from Twickenham.