Where the real strength lies
In all probability Saracens and Quins will continue to dominate the scene over the next year or two. The question is: who can hope to get closest to them?
The two Ws, Wasps and Worcester, have made huge gains in the transfer market, raising hopes for a top-four placement in the coming season.
Giselle Mather has added yet more top players to her recent acquisitions. Joining Abi Burton, Carys Williams, Celia Quansah and Heather Kerr in Black and Gold are Ellie Kildunne, Megan Jones and Ro Burnfield. If ever there was a statement of intent, this is it.
Mather has proved that you don’t need to be the first on the market floor to get the best deal.
One question for students of higher mathematics: how do you fit this group of international backs into the seven positions available behind the pack: Dow, Jones, Kildunne, Macdonald, Mason, Quansah, Williams and Wilson Hardy?
Neither Sarries nor Quins have ever paraded a complete line-up of English international backs in the Prem 15s. Yet Wasps, on paper, should be able to. Then the follow-up question: will the forwards be able to deliver them enough ball to swing every game? Well, the addition of Burnfield, Burton, Heather Kerr and Ciara Cooney to a pack containing Harriet Millar-Mills, Cliodhna Moloney and other luminaries should squeeze more than 5% possession out of any opposition.
And – the icing on the cake – Claire Molloy returns to action for Ireland and Wasps. That is thoroughly discomfiting news for her opponents.
The Fight at the Top
It’s good to see the perennial top two being threatened like this. Saracens and Quins have been the pace-setters for long enough.
In the past two seasons Gloucester-Hartpury and Loughborough Lightning have each reached the semi-finals once alongside the Wasps (twice), but none has managed to topple the pack leaders.
At this stage of proceedings neither G-H nor Lightning look capable of upsetting the odds. Lightning have acquired two major Sevens stars in Abbie Brown, the captain, and Helena Rowland, but they have lost a vital cog in Katy Daley-Mclean as well as the experienced Scottish lock, Sarah Bonar. She moves to G-H, who have had a consistently potent back-line, sharpened by Mo Hunt’s move there. But the forwards haven’t been able consistently to hold their own against the toughest packs, despite the presence of Zoe Aldcroft – a major star in the Red Roses’ engine room this year – and the forthright Ti Tauasosi at No 8.
They, like Bristol and Worcester, are employing a number of Welsh internationals to bolster their chances.
It is Worcester who look mostly likely to compete with Wasps to overthrow the top two. Jo Yapp has been adding wisely to her squad. The club still isn’t used to winning games on a regular basis. Their first two victories came at the back end of the second season after a run of 35 losses. By the time the 2019-20 season finished abruptly, they had added three more in twelve games. So the new players – such as Heather Fisher, Caity Mattinson, Jo Brown, Alex Matthews and Paige Farries, will need to make their mark from the start.
While the Warriors have been netting this large haul of internationals, the Bears have limited themselves to new faces from the other side of the Severn Bridge. That will give them a strong sense of common purpose, but the players who have left Shaftesbury Perk may be sorely missed. At least we can expect the Bears’ codes to be exclusively in Welsh – except when they play G-H and Warriors!
That leaves DMP. The only news of signings is recent: seven of last year’s Development side have signed on for the elite squad. It makes a stark contrast with Wasps’ happy tidings and leaves their future success in some doubt. At least they have another three years to develop a really thriving presence in the north-east. Will any more Scots be minded to cross the border and join them?
It’s hard to see the two newcomers making a strong impression in their debut season. Sale in particular look vulnerable. Exeter have been so long in the assembly stage that it will take a huge effort from players and coaches to come up to speed once the season is allowed to begin.
As for the perennial finalists, Sarries have spaced out news of their top players signing on again to increase the drama. It was hard to imagine any of them walking away.
Quins will be happiest about Lagi Tuima’s return to service after two long years out. Very neatly she can replace Khadidja Camara who has returned home to France.
England’s Sevens Players
Most of the Sevens squad have now found a club to play for, Emma Uren recently announcing her return to Saracens. That leaves only Beth Wilcock (Quins) who may also be returning to her previous haunt.
One fascinating long-term unknown is whether the fifteen contracted Sevens players are likely to stay with the clubs they have joined. Their move back to Fifteens is essentially short-term, a means of ensuring they get some rugby under their belts during the enforced hiatus in the elite Sevens programme. Once the Tokyo Olympics are behind them, what then? Players have switched and switched again between the two formats. Hard to tell how many of the current crop will feel totally bound to the HSBC World Series calendar, and how many might prefer to make this return to the basic game permanent.
Certainly the presence of these super-fit, super-skilled practitioners of the short-format will add greatly to our enjoyment of the fourth version of the Premier 15s.
Fingers crossed for the hoped-for start of jousting, 10 October.