Source: Loughborough Lightning

The Most Momentous Round of Women’s Rugby Yet

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Allianz Premier 15s Round One

Rugby archivists might consider 16 September 2017 as a red-letter day in the development of the game. The first round of the new women’s elite Tyrrells Premier 15s took place. But the events surrounding this year’s first round may well prove even more historic.

The RFU has done well to get the game started at all, given the privations caused by the pandemic. But warning voices are heard worrying about the lack of testing before the show gets on the road.

Already one of the five matches has had to be postponed. A Bristol Bears player tested positive, so a clutch of her team-mates and coaches are having to isolate. Fortunately none has proved positive. The game with Wasps will now be played on 31 October.

While the two teams will regret the need to delay their restart even further, at least they know their immediate well-being is safeguarded.

Susie Appleby of Exeter is deeply unhappy about the lack of testing. But as Johnnie Hammond pointed out in his latest pod, it would cost ‘£40,000 per week to test a squad’. Not even Allianz is likely to view that sort of request with a smile and a nod.

So in the absence of an all-in test-and-trace, much depends on individual players and their staff to ensure that no unnecessary health risk is run.

Four gaps have been built into the season’s programme to cover just such an emergency. With schedules now having to be squeezed into an ever shrinking time-span, it’s perfectly possible that Allianz Prem 15s games will clash with internationals. As it stands, the last round is not due till 10 April. Three years ago that date was 24 March.

England’s attempts at getting rugby under way are suffering the same trauma as in France. Many games there are being postponed, leaving the possibility of the same conflict of interests.

A New-Look Game

Why is this new version of the elite league so different?

Today’s players (and referees!) are having to adjust to a set of law-amendments unlike any others introduced in the past. Rugby’s laws have been adjusted again and again over the years, but never for today’s reasons. The underlying motive is to reduce the amount of human contact made. Indeed some of the amendments have percentage reductions added to them, showing (more or less precisely) what effect the measures will have.

But now one of England’s foremost coaches, Giselle Mather, is heard lamenting the reduction in scrums. She accepts the reasoning for the changes, but worries about the loss of the game’s soul – the set-scrum lies at the very heart of the game.

Most of the law-changes of the last 30-40 years have led to a much faster game – time was when a pass had to be caught cleanly or a knock-on was awarded! – but now Mather sees a (temporary) end to the game ‘fit for all shapes and sizes’. Sevens is fine for the fleet of foot, but leaves the vast majority of players out in the cold.

So players will be returning to action that came to an abrupt halt in January. How fit for purpose will they all be? Saturday should give us the answer.

New Faces

Then we come to more recognisable details, new players, new coaches, new teams.

It’s disappointing that among the five new head coach appointments over the past year only one is a woman, and she is Susie Appleby who simply switches across from Gloucester-Hartpury to the newbies Exeter Chiefs. Four other clubs, DMPDS, G-H, Quins and Sale, have not found it possible to appoint a woman, so the same four survive, Kim Oliver at Bristol, Jo Yapp at Worcester, Appleby and Mather.

Some of these eleven names may not be immediately recognisable: Appleby, Austerberry, Dixon and Brett, Edwards, Lamon, Lynn, Mather, Mullen, Oliver and Yapp.

There have been dozens of new signings up and down the country. All the England Sevens players are now accounted for, Beth Wilcock at last (re)signing on for Quins. It’s the first time for a long while that all the Red Roses, 7s and 15s, will be operating together. That adds to the sense of anticipation. Plenty of overseas internationals have signed on, mostly from across the pond.

The two new clubs both face campus-based sides, Glos-Pury and Lightning. Beth Stafford has been appointed captain of Sale Sharks; Linde van der Velden leads the Chiefs. We’ll be able to watch her team in full colour via live stream – details below.

Of the two, it’s the Chiefs who will present a less familiar face. They’ve just announced the addition of five overseas players, Emily Tuttosi, McKinley Hunt, Taylor Black and Olivia DeMerchant, all from Canada, plus the Japanese prop Sachiko Katoh. At least Tuttosi and DeMerchant are well known from their stays with Lightning and Saracens respectively. With representatives from Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Wales there’s a touch of the United Nations about them.

It will be fascinating to watch them finding their feet against a well-orchestrated side like Glos-Pury.

Media coverage

One game a week will be covered on live stream. The details:

Round 1: Gloucester-Hartpury v Exeter Chiefs (Saturday 10 October, KO 14.30)
Round 2: Wasps v Harlequins (Saturday 17 October, KO 14.00)
Round 3: Worcester Warriors v Wasps (Saturday 24 October, KO 14.00)
Round 4: Loughborough Lightning v Harlequins (KO Saturday 7 November, 14.00)

They are accessible via Premier15s.com, Premier 15s Twitter, as well as England Rugby’s YouTube and Facebook.
This is heartening news. Then we have to wonder why two clubs find favour twice and while four miss out.

Round One Fixtures

Bristol Bears v Wasps 14.00 (postponed to 31 October)
Gloucester-Hartpury v Exeter Chiefs 14.00
Harlequins v Darlington Mowden Park Durham Sharks 14.30
Sale Sharks v Loughborough Lightning 15.00
Saracens v Worcester Warriors 16.00

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