DS v Worcester
Exeter v Bristol
Loughborough v Gloucester-Hartpury
Sale v Saracens
Wasps v Quins
Two First Outings
It will be our first chance to clap eyes on the two sides who missed out last weekend, the Bears and the Wasps. Will there be any room left over in the Bristol XV for non-Welsh players? Sarah Bern and Amber Reed might scrape through Kim Oliver’s elimination process, and who else?
As for Wasps, Giselle Mather’s first published 23 will indicate how she’s solved the problem of having too many top-quality players to deal with. They met Quins in the very first round of the Tyrrells in 2017. Some water has flowed under the bridge since then.
These line-ups show just how much:
Louise Dodd 15 Natasha Bradshaw
Tova Derk 14 Jessica Wooden
Kate Alder (C) 13 Jessica Breach
Hannah Edwards 12 Holly Myers
Abby Dow 11 Heather Cowell
Tina Veale 10 Bree Hill
Sammy Wong 9 Leanne Riley
Kanyinsola Afilaka 1 Jenny Vik
Sarah Mimnagh 2 Paula Robinson
Sarah< Batley 3 Chloe Edwards
Nora Baltruweit 4 Amy Garrett
Alex Powell 5 Shaunagh Brown
Charlie Veale 6 Samantha Voyle
Alice Sheffield 7 Ashleigh Greenslade
Sarah Mitchelson 8 Fiona Fletcher (C)
And the mention of ‘23’ reminds us that squads have, as predicted, grown by one since last season. That brings the Prem. into line with international regulations, but runs counter to the proposals World Rugby was toying with – to reduce the number of bench players.
It helps marginally to solve the problem of keeping all 40 squad players active, a consideration that the RFU hasn’t explained adequately. It has allowed dual-qualifications, but that is no straightforward matter for player or management.
At the season’s end it will be revealing to discover how often each player has managed to represent her club.
Bristol are away to the Chiefs who will be operating at Sandy Park for the first time. Susie Appleby is sure to have sorted a few points of weakness from last Saturday.
The two campus-based sides meet in Loughborough. The hosts will hope to have Emily Scarratt back in the mix. Glos-Pury can take heart from their confident win against debutants Exeter.
Sale managed one score versus Lightning and looked like a very decent side in the making. But now they host the champions who overcame a much improved Warriors side despite lacking such likelies as Bryony Cleall, Deborah Fleming, Hannah Botterman, Marlie Packer, Rosie Galligan and Sarah McKenna.
Is it inevitable that the Northern Echo Arena will see the biggest score of the day? The Warriors looked unrecognisable from past sides – slick, organised, competent. Sarries overcame them at the end, but the DMP Sharks’ pounding from Quins (0-103) inside a bare 70 minutes gives few grounds for optimism.
Games did look different. The number of scrums reduced markedly, just as the law-makers had wanted. Quins had to wait till the second half for their first; they promptly pushed DMP back over their line. The game has speeded up, justifying the reduction to 70 minutes. The knock-on now means turnover, so a game can appear pinball-like until final passes really stick.
All eyes are turning to the Prem to see how these adjustments are working out. Since we have no idea how long they will be needed, we can’t tell whether (all) other unions will follow suit. When it comes to the Six Nations internationals due over the next two months, strict protocols are in force. Players are tested regularly. But is it possible that some at least of the adaptations will be authorised? World Rugby and the 6N committee have difficult decisions to make, and time is pressing.
Any changes brought in beyond English borders would have to be agreed and practised by each national squad. Unless all of them have the time and space to work on them, no changes are likely to the basic laws. Lovers of the scrum will be heartened; the risks are obvious.
A Word of Caution
Till now only a single match has fallen foul of the pandemic. Contrast the French Elite 1 tournament. Since 9 September ten games have been postponed over five rounds; none because the coach broke down on the way. With certain clubs harder hit than others (Grenoble are the current fall-guys), the amount of catching up to do is very uneven. The backlog means that fixture secretaries will be hard pressed to fit delayed games into the allotted time-span.
So we must be ready for delays and disappointments. The 2020-21 schedule for the Allianz Premier 15s is basically the same as before. Only, with a later start and more gaps, it will stretch into next May.
Fingers firmly crossed.