After a colossal hiatus play was resumed in the Premier 15s with a new sponsor, two new clubs and a host of law-amendments to catch the unwary.
Congratulations to the 30 players representing Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks in their very first showing at elite level.
Exeter have experienced huge disadvantages in their build-up, but the odd nuggety bonus. They have had only nine weeks of preparation and are still waiting for one or two players to emerge from quarantine. But they do have the men’s national champions alongside them to act as guides and examples.
Saracens are having to scrape by with only 16 full England internationals. Are they for the big drop?
The Big Match
Gloucester-Hartpury v Exeter Chiefs
Right at the eleventh hour Susie Appleby added four new names to her Exeter roster, one of them a big one: Lauren Cattell (the Saracens centre with 23 caps for England) plus Lauren Leatherland (the Worcester front-rower), Flo Robinson (the England U20 player who hails from Pulborough) and Louise Burgess (the Richmond winger).
It was written in the clouds: Appleby was fated to return to her old club for the Chiefs’ baptism of fire.
It was sunny but breezy at Hartpury as England Rugby offered their first live stream of the season. The early stages were full of movement, but the most persistent law-amendment, a free-kick for a knock-on, meant the attacking side paid the penalty for that last pass that couldn’t be held. It took the hosts eighteen minutes to make the difference. A quick repossession on the left, Ceri Large’s deliberately delayed pass, and Kelly Smith made the England selectors sit up and take notice again. She accelerated away, then swerved back inside to post the first score. (Ceri Large has NOT hung her boots up – my apologies.)
Exeter looked a very decent side, led by the prominent figure of Linde van der Velden at No 8, but they failed to make proper use of the wind advantage. When they crossed G-H’s 22 for the first time, it was another fumble that did for them.
After 25 minutes G-H’s well-organised forwards produced two drives – they are restricted to the two 22s these days – allowing Connie Powell to claim the second try.
Only three minutes later the Chiefs got their first try, a landmark moment. Sara Cox played advantage, then blew for a penalty way back across the field. Van der Linden tapped at once, stepped and drove for the line. A fitting gesture for her in her team’s debut match. Cattell, an important figure in their back-play, converted.
This was a much tighter scoreline than most had expected, and Appleby must have been pleased with many aspects of her team’s play.
But the second half showed what had been missing. Both Mo Hunt and Large made proper use of the strong breeze that the visitors had neglected earlier. One Large kick in particular relieved heavy pressure on the G-H line to switch play to the other end in the blink of an eye.
Within ten minutes Zoe Aldcroft and Hannah Jones made the game safe for the hosts, hoisting the bonus point too.
But Exeter weren’t done. They put together a fine move, involving the backs then the forwards, for the USA captain Kate Zackary to drive over. Another Cattell conversion reduced the gap to eight. (22-14)
But even at this late stage they found themselves exiting from defence through painful drive after drive. The inevitable knock-on left them where they had started. Hannah Jones made a lovely break moving left and found Daisy Fahey outside her to run in for a fifth score.
Connie Powell, who had played thoroughly well, was unfortunate to injure an ankle and had to be stretchered off. Undeterred, the Cherry-and-Whites completed a convincing win with a second try for Aldcroft.
Anybody playing for Mo Hunt’s team this season now knows there will be little chance to enjoy a glance at the surrounding landscape or a passing cloud. Her approach is all-out attack. Fortunately, she has the players around her to produce a fast-paced game. Tatyana Heard enjoyed a welcome return after injury, showing very well. Shona Powell-Hughes made sure Ti Tauasosi wasn’t missed at the base of the scrum with a powerful performance.
Final Score: 34-14
Player of the Match: Zoe Aldcroft
Referee: Sara Cox
G-H: Hannah Jones; Ellie Underwood, Rachel Lund, Tatyana Heard, Kelly Smith; Ceri Large, Mo Hunt (captain); Ellena Perry, Connie Powell, Cerys Hale; Sarah Bonar, Zoe Aldcroft; Gwen Crabb, Sian Williams, Shona Powell-Hughes.
Exeter: Merryn Doidge; Jennine Duncan, Lottie Holland, Lauren Cattell, Garnet Mackinder; Taylor Black, Ffion Lewis; Michaella Roberts, Emily Tuttosi, Sachiko Katoh; Abbie Fleming, McKinley Hunt; Ebony Jefferies, Kate Zackary, Linde van der Velden (captain)
Gloucester-Hartpury 34 Exeter Chiefs 14
Harlequins 103 DMPD Sharks 0
Sale Sharks 7 Loughborough Lightning 29
Saracens 34 Worcester Warriors 25
Bristol Bears v Wasps – postponed to 31st October
Loud voices were raised complaining about the lack of live stream coverage of the early rounds. Why only one per week?
If we want proper full coverage, it means two people in the comm. box, plus all the paraphernalia to make a game viewable (how many cameras do we expect?). I’ve no idea about the cost of a single live stream, but sense that multiplying that by five (5 matches per round) is likely to stretch the RFU’s purse-strings quite a distance.
There was much unease about the decision to go ahead with the Prem. The inherent danger here was starting full-bore rugby minus testing. The RFU’s argument was: unlike the men’s programme that was allowed to start way back, a full testing programme was impossible when most women players are amateur and away at work and study. This decision is so like the government’s, having to balance human safety (restrictions) against the desire to return to normality as soon as possible.
When you find a member of SAGE saying that the measures taken to reduce face-to-face contact are so slight as to be negligible, we must take notice. The Red Roses involved are tested regularly in accordance with Six Nations protocols, so are aware of the dangers involved in taking part in the club matches.
One respondent was blunt: it was ‘reckless’ not to have a full testing programme. He overlooks the near impossibility of creating it, with players spread far and wise, doing a whole range of jobs that make that regularity quite impossible. Then there is the ongoing yoke of lack of funding. The only answer then is ‘no rugby’.
Quins’ hammering of DMP (103-0) confirmed my worst predictions for the Northerners’ fate this season. They have managed to lose possession of their two outstanding Red Roses, Tamara Taylor and Heather Kerr, and are now in the hands of two new coaches, who must feel like innocents abroad after this result. The club has failed to acquire new players of the stature needed to survive at this exalted level. If things can’t be turned around quickly, then the next three seasons look bleak.
This is the third unwelcome century of points the Premier 15s has produced, Sarries and Quins having already scored their maiden hundreds.
Lead photo shows Player of the Match Zoe Aldcroft in Sharks colours