A lot has been happening on different fronts as women’s rugby in England hopes to catch up with other countries.
The big news from the world of Sevens broke on 15 September.
The men and women members of England’s 7s squads have announced a crowdfunding campaign to replace the contracts that the RFU decided to withdraw. It has already attracted huge support.
The 6 Nations
The resumption of the great championship draws ever closer. Wales have taken two big decisions: they have appointed Darren Edwards as the interim head of the coaching team for their last 6 Nations match, (against Scotland at the Arms Park) That temporary move doesn’t arouse a lot of confidence. Wales women have been without a permanent head coach for a distressingly long period.
Edwards has announced a training squad of 35. There is just one uncapped player among them, Laura Bleehen, but eleven (11!) from Bristol. It makes you wonder whether the Bears’ coaching staff shouldn’t put in for some commission.
Ireland have announced a training squad of 36 and Italy of 24. Both face huge challenges beyond the 6N. They have to compete for World Cup places. The stakes are high.
Giselle Mather has been busy at Wasps. She has regained double international, Amy Wilson Hardy, signed on 7s flier Celia Quansah (pictured above), and, far more unexpectedly, added Heather Kerr and Carys Williams to the strength. Kerr has worn DMP colours from the start, so her move comes as a real surprise. Williams left Loughborough to look at a career in the RAF but finds herself donning her boots again at Twyford Avenue. Both have played for the Red Roses with distinction.
In a counter-move Wasps have lost Lizzie Goulden, their Kiwi fly-half, to Lightning, no doubt to help fill the huge gap left by Katy Daley-Mclean’s departure. She joins Abbie Brown and Helena Rowland as additions to their back line.
In addition Mather has brought in Ciara Cooney, the Irish test forward from Railway Union, who played Wasps in London last year, and Sadia Kabeya, the promising young flanker from Richmond.
Most of England’s 7s players have now returned to 15s. One of the latest is Sydney Gregson who has signed on again at Saracens. But mystery still hovers over the remainder.
It was intriguing to hear Heather Fisher whisper she would be occupying a new position for Worcester. Potential opponents will hope they don’t have the doubtful pleasure of facing her directly.
Susie Appleby has been able to announce three major signings, the first this summer from the USA: Gabby Cantorna, Jennine Duncan and Kate Zackary. Zackary is the experienced captain of the Eagles; Duncan scored a remarkable try at the end of the England-USA game in 2018 when they were reduced to 14. Cantorna earned her first cap against the Black Ferns in 2018 before going on to be a first pick for the Eagles.
All these transfers of front-rank players leave that question of position in doubt. Kerr will have Cliodhna Moloney competing for the No 2 shirt. And who plays on the wing? Mather has Wilson Hardy, Quansah, Abby Dow and Katie Mason to accommodate, all internationals. Yapp has far more quality backs than can legally be permitted on the field at the same time.
How do the Premier 15s prospects look?
The two perennial pack leaders, Saracens and Quins, have been very quiet during the extended summer lull. Indeed, the biggest movements have been among the Quins’ staff: a new head coach, Gerard Mullen; another coach, Mark Cadogan, who has moved to Richmond, and now a request for a part-time physio. Sarries have gained Holly Aitchison from the England 7s squad and Emma Swords who returns from Quins. But they have lost Garnet Mackinder and Hannah Duffy to Exeter.
Who can possibly overtake them? Sides that have acquired some real extra strength are Wasps and Worcester, both in the hands of coaches (Mather and Jo Yapp) who gain the trust of their players and are shrewd judges of talent. The Warriors are almost bound to finish quite a bit higher up the table than ever before. There is real competition for places.
If all of Bristol’s Welsh internationals can play to their maximum, they should enjoy a better year than last time. But they have lost a number of their first-choice players to other clubs. Their nearest neighbours, Gloucester-Hartpury, have also been quiet over the summer.
Of the other clubs returning to the Prem. DMP, now renamed DMPDS, look to be in the direst position. There are rumours of wranglings at staff level: Tamara Taylor is deemed surplus to playing requirements, and their other major Red Rose, Heather Kerr, has left for Wasps. If that prediction proves true, then it adds to the unwelcome gap between north and south.
Adding to that trend, Sale have found it hard finding the quality of player to withstand the stresses of elite level. They have acquired a handful of test players, but, apart from the central figure of Katy Daley-Mclean, none to raise fears in the hearts of their opponents.
The good news for all ten clubs is that the original (2017) freeze on promotion/relegation continues for the next three years. Plenty can change in that time.
The bad news is that Premiership clubs are predicting huge losses if their grounds can’t be opened to the public in large numbers. This is where other sources of funding are important for their female equivalents.