Structures and Strictures
For the 2020-21 season the RFU made a few decisive changes to the operation of its Premier 15s, second version.
The Forgotten Ones
One decision that has seen little comment is the reduction of club squads from 60 to 40. This was an effort to bring the cream to the top – and succeeded well. But it meant abolishing the Development sides, the second Fifteens that ensured a wider base for the first-class game.
What happened to the 160 players no longer able to represent Bristol, DMP, Gloucester-Hartpury, Lightning, Quins, Saracens, Wasps and Worcester?
I have spotted only one mention of them by a club through the course of the season, the Bears regretting their departure.
The one outcome the RFU couldn’t bargain for was a pandemic, which among a thousand other painful blows prevented any play below elite level. So the hope that those rejected players would be welcomed by Championship clubs up and down the land came to nothing.
And if the pandemic had stayed away? The RFU assumed that those ambitious second-tier clubs would prosper with the addition of new talent, but that surely was misplaced optimism. ‘Prosper’ must mean bringing the clubs closer to the level of the AP 15s, but since that is becoming more and more professional in its approach, the gulf in standards would persist.
Only the top ten clubs would be assured of all the human and material resources needed at elite level.
Even the retention of those 40 players has left its problems. 23 are needed per round, leaving a maximum of 17 unoccupied. As Susie Appleby said, even if a player takes advantage of a double qualification, the nearest other club might lie far from the player’s base, and there would be no automatic funding for travel and other expenses.
A quick comparison: AS Romagnat in France’s Elite 1 lists 39 players. If we assume the maximum is 40, that gives a total of 640 players at elite level in France. England’s maximum is 10 x 40 = 400. The disparities in playing ability within each group are likely to be the same, pretty wide, but at least far more French players are being exposed to the challenges of top-level rugby. The RFU chose a different path, reducing the number of top players in the expectation of raising standards to a new high.
Prem 15s and Premiership Links
Another policy has been to increase the number of Prem 15s clubs linked to the leading men’s clubs. They now number eight: Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester-Hartpury, Quins, Sale, Saracens, Wasps and Worcester; but not Lightning and DMPDS.
This is a very misleading list. The degree of partnership varies enormously, from the very close, exemplified by Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park and Worcester Warriors at Sixways, to Wasps, who play a hundred or so miles from their confreres up in Coventry and remain essentially amateur.
Only Exeter, Lightning, Saracens and Worcester play all their home matches on the same ground as the men. Bristol, Gloucester-Hartpury and Sale use other locations. Quins have a half-and-half arrangement, using both the Stoop and Surrey Sports Park, which acts as their training base. The mere presence of the men’s coaches at the women’s training sessions can be a massive advantage, as Appleby asserts.
One persistent argument has been that women’s rugby must escape from the tentacles of the men’s game. This year’s 6 Nations was a shining example of that move succeeding. The shift from its February-March slot to April was widely welcomed. Must future elite women’s clubs be restricted to the men’s?
Follow my Leader?
When Bath RFC announced their intention to apply for membership of the AP 15s in 2023, Tarquin McDonald, their MD, said:
‘Women and girls don’t have a clear pathway to the professional game, it’s one of the biggest barriers to entry and one of the many stark comparisons against the men’s game.’
This statement takes a lot of working out. One assumption he makes is that the men’s professional game is working well and can be seen as a guiding light for the women’s version. It is 26 years since the RFU introduced professionalism, and still clubs and authorities argue over how it should be managed. The problem of financing the game has still not been solved.
The desire of Gallagher Premiership clubs to do away with promotion-relegation is the opposite of the open game rugby is supposed to represent. The twelve fixed points they represent on the map leave the rest of the country uncatered for. Spreading the talent geographically is important; the ambition of London Irish and Ealing Trailfinders to join in the fun would mean five elite clubs centred on London.
The two divisions of the women’s Championship represent clubs spread far and wide in the north from Newcastle to Loughborough; in the south from Bath to Thurrock. That gives players the chance to find a club (relatively) close at hand, reducing the time spent travelling to and from training sessions.
What effect does McDonald see Bath’s admission to a future AP 15s having on the current ten clubs? Would he be in favour of promotion-relegation in the women’s game? Or does he prefer the Gallagher clubs’ preference for the closed shop?
Let’s assume that all has returned to normal when the new season starts. It will take a long time for players denied any competition for so long to return to the levels of past years. At least we may find out where all those lost to the Prem 15s have gone. Will some have said: ‘Enough is enough, I’m hanging up my boots’? The RFU must hope not.