The AP 15s kick off in 48 hours. This fifth season is likely to provide the highest quality yet.
It’s also possible there will be a changing of the guard, not root and crop, but enough to cause the traditional leading clubs a few qualms of doubt.
First the fixtures:
Saturday 4 September (note varying kick-off times)
Bristol Bears v Exeter Chiefs KO 12.00
Sale Sharks v Worcester Warriors KO 13.30
Wasps v Saracens KO 15.00
Gloucester-Hartpury v DMPDS KO 16.30
Sunday 5 September
Harlequins v Loughborough Lightning, Stoop, 15.00
There have been the usual eleventh-hour transfers. Here Susie Appleby has led the way claiming a major name, Chloe Rollie of Quins. Not satisfied with that, two more players have joined, Maisy Allen (Glos-Pury) and DaLeaka Menin (Loughborough and Canada).
Another significant move involves Alycia Washington, the experienced American lock. She will be a valuable asset for Warriors.
Back to normal?
With any luck we may have said a permanent goodbye to the special law adjustments that came in last season to mitigate the effects of Covid-19.
To everyone’s delight spectators are now welcome back.
Co-captaincy is all the rage again. Both Bristol and Wasps have doubled the role for the new season. Abbie Ward joins the returning skipper Amber Reed at Shaftesbury Park; at Twyford Avenue Claudia Macdonald steps up from the ranks to join long-term captain Katie Alder.
In an idle moment you could imagine all sorts of ways this practice might work out:
1. Co-captains switch at half-time
2. Co-captains switch alternate matches
3. Co-captains switch mid-season
4. Decision time – go for goal or kick for the corner? Co-captains disagree, so toss a coin or have a fight
5. Co-captains give conflicting orders to the team; players respond to the captain they like better or are more afraid of.
The possibilities are endless.
At Sandy Park Kate Zachary (USA) has inherited the captaincy from Linde van der Velden (Netherlands).
Several clubs have announced and modelled new kits, so regular fans who haven’t already bought their own version will have to be careful which team they find themselves cheering for.
Areas of doubt
With qualifiers for the World Cup coming this month (spread over three weeks), the nations involved, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Spain, will have their individual build-ups prepared. So AP 15s clubs will be affected.
Rollie’s move will have a direct effect on Merryn Doidge’s future as an England prospect. She was an uncapped reserve in the last international at Lille, but finds her club No 15 shirt liable to be taken by the Scot. But not just yet.
Several Sevens players have signed on again with their clubs, but their future programme remains complex. The GB squad will split up for the Commonwealth Games next year, but regather as soon as the World Series kicks off again. In short, clubs won’t be able to count on their regular presence.
It’s concerning to see so many Scottish squad players listed as ‘unattached’. One such was Rollie, but now her future is known.
How professional can you get?
At the launch of the new season Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s head of performance, made several important points.
Beyond club level he called on other 6 Nations unions to step up the professionalisation of their women’s programmes.
He will be as aware as anyone of the obstacles to progress, most of all lack of funding. But many critics sense a lack of commitment among the executives of those nations.
It’s a sad irony that O’Shea, once a distinguished full-back for Ireland, now finds himself at Twickenham, far from Irish affairs. Other leading Celtic figures, especially women, have followed a similar path, not least Karen Findlay, late of Quins and Lisa ‘Bird’ Burgess, now at Worcester Warriors. What influence might they have brought to bear back at home?
The AP 15s is planning to introduce full Head Injury Assessments, a crucial step forward for the women’s game.
Plans for the reshaping of the league are to be announced in the new year. I have attempted to pull the threads together on several previous occasions (and failed). If the RFU’s various think-tanks can come up with a new format which satisfies all its customers, that will be an achievement and a half.
There are so many conflicting interests, from the ten established clubs to aspirant Gallagher Premiership clubs to Greene King IPA Championship clubs (Ealing Trailfinders), to women’s Championship clubs – and not least the players. Do we really want an AP 15s mirroring the men’s version even closer? It is far from representing an ideal structure.
Then there are the calls from Celtic clubs to be allowed to join in the fun. This is simply an admission of defeat. If the unions concerned are backing these efforts, then they are failing in the duty to their nation and their women’s clubs. That story was given sharp focus with the news of the disbanding of Swansea’s women’s section.
Much to look forward to
Will we see new champions installed this season?
Dozens of players will have half an eye on the impending World Cup; that will help to raise standards and competition even further.
The Cleall sisters will be playing against each other, this weekend, if we’re lucky.