Susie Appleby has added four more names to Exeter Chiefs’ playing strength. They are Brooke Bradley, Clara Nielson, Kakako Kobayashi and Olivia Jones.
Together they bring greater depth and experience to a squad that was already good enough to post a record run of seven wins last season and beat both the finalists.
Nielson’s surprise departure from Bristol recently is now explained: she is returning to her native heath Devon. Bradley, Worcester’s scrum-half, is likewise returning home, though she will have to battle with Patricia Garcia and Flo Robinson for the No 9 shirt – assuming of course that Robinson doesn’t see her future in the centre.
Liv Jones has been an imposing presence in Lightning’s backline and was good enough to figure in England’s highly successful 2018 Sevens squad. Appleby isn’t alone in suspecting there are new levels for her still to reach.
Kobayashi’s signing is a leap in the dark for Appleby, as she admits, but all reports of her at the Japanese Sports University have been positive. Sachiko Kato’s presence in the team will help her settle in.
The balance of these four names is significant: three of them are English and two are home-grown Devonians. That was an underlying policy Appleby insisted on from the start: ensure the fifteen on the field in the debut match was strong enough (plenty of overseas internationals), then bring on the local talent in the south-west.
Several clubs have announced pre-season fixtures. One of the most eye-catching sees the Chiefs host Wasps at Sandy Park this Saturday (21 August). Gloucester-Hartpury who met Worcester last week go north to face Sale on the same day.
Bristol Bears travel up the M5 to meet Worcester Warriors at Sixways to make a third fascinating clash on Saturday.
Sarries’ supporters have been heard lamenting the loss of crucial players, most of all Bryony Cleall (Wasps); they fear a takeover by Quins. But they should look wider: both Exeter and Bristol could make significant lifts up the table. And this heightened competition is precisely what the AP 15s needs.
Still, a glance at the array of talent still available to Alex Austerberry makes Sarries look ridiculously strong contenders to finish top dog.
The new season is a fortnight away. In that time it’s perfectly possible we may see further signings across the ten clubs; several of them have been silent on the topic over the summer. The ones that have lost players to rival clubs must be on the look-out for reinforcements. At this level of existence standing still is not an option.
This is where the campus-based clubs in particular, Gloucester-Hartpury and Loughborough Lightning, can find life difficult. Both have an apparently endless production-line of talent streaming through, but it needs a leavening of experience to reach the upper levels of the elite league. Just two departures, Sarah Bonar from G-H (to Quins) and Liv Jones from Lightning, mean players of equivalent standing must be found.
That leaves DMP Durham Sharks. The north-east has provided England with a host of outstanding talent (Sarah Hunter, Katy Daley-Mclean…) but once again there’s no sign of major signings coming to Durham. Instead, Jess Cooksey becomes yet another player to move south (to Wasps).
We can only hope they do not suffer another season like 2020-21.
Lead photo shows Bryony Cleall scoring a try whilst on England duty in the 6 Nations