It’s been very noticeable the extra lift the England Sevens players have given the tournament. Helena Rowland was named Player of Round One by the Women’s Rugby Show. She had to step into the demanding role of No 10 for Lightning, who were hoping the departure of Katy Daley-Mclean wouldn’t harm them excessively.
Then Ellie Kildunne’s try for Wasps against Quins was (quite correctly) adjudged the best of Round Two, after a dazzling break by Megan Jones – she too returning to No 10 where she hasn’t played for quite a while.
No-one is surprised to see Alex Matthews performing heroics for Worcester. She will come up against those Wasps, plus Abi Burton and Celia Quansah on Saturday, under the gaze of England Rugby’s cameras. Holly Aitchison and Sydney Gregson teamed up in the centre for Sarries in the second round to make it even harder to knock the champions off their perch.
The table presents a familiar shape despite the addition of two new clubs. It remains unbalanced until Bristol and Wasps can complete their third fixture in the otherwise empty weekend that follows.
But who can get the better of Sarries and Quins? It’s a tough ask. Between them they claim 16 of the 28 contracts, and their support players only add to their strength.
This is a problem that has faced the Prem 15s since the start; the reshaping project tried to make it more equal. Two clubs were removed and two added with more financial backing – the Chiefs’ plainly stated – but even they have had to rely on overseas imports. When all of them are operating at full blast, they should provide a real challenge to the top-notchers, add Patricia Garcia (No 9 or 10) and Olivia DeMerchant and Laura Delgado (front row), and you begin to see a formidable side.
It’s the club’s wish to nurture all the local talent the south-west provides. But would such a side then be able to topple Sarries?
Sale have to travel for the first time, and it’s a long way to west Gloucestershire. For the third time running they meet a top-4 club.
Darlington Sharks were missing their Scottish test players, but even with their return, could they expect to overcome sides placed above them in the league? It’s very doubtful. And Lisa Thomson, a key figure for them last year, is now officially unattached, so that is another important team member they have managed to lose. Their links to Durham University and a Yorkshire School of Excellence are fine, but of value only in the long term. And this time round they face the sternest challenge of all, the double champions.
Quite apart from Exeter’s absentees a whole number of leading figures haven’t yet returned to the big stage. They include: Amy Wilson Hardy, Bryony Cleall, Cath O’Donnell, Claire Molloy, Clara Nielson, Jodie Ounsley, Rowena Burnfield and Sarah McKenna.
Their reappearance – in the short and longer term – can only add further lustre to the tournament.
This third round has to fight for our attention against the first of the international series, Ireland hosting Italy in Round 4 of the Six Nations.
Bristol v Loughborough
Gloucester-Hartpury v Sale
Quins v Exeter
Saracens v DMPDS
Worcester v Wasps