Source: Bruce Perkins

The Allianz Premier 15s – Autumn Report

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School report: Good work and progress, but needs to take more care over its weaknesses. Still undecided about long-term career prospects.

As we reach the first break in the 2021-22 programme, it’s a chance to assess how things are going.

There has been some glorious rugby played, highlighted by the quality of the Tries of the Round competition each week.

The club of the season thus far has been Bristol Bears. What has happened to them?

Big changes were the order of the day: major new players, Abbie Ward, Leanne Riley and Hannah West, though Leanne hasn’t played yet; young players like Grace Crompton who have made a positive contribution; and at last the Bears’ most eminent names, Amber Reed and Sarah Bern, who have returned to action. For the rest, it’s the same names on the field, now producing the goods. Then there’s a new coaching staff, led by Dave Ward, a new training centre; and beyond that they are one of the clubs profiting from a close link to the men’s section. Pat Lam has become a familiar figure at women’s training sessions.

Now they must prove their staying power.

It was Exeter Chiefs’ misfortune to meet Bears first up. They are many people’s hot tip for a final-four finish, strengthened by a stunning win away against Quins. But they were put firmly in their place by Sarries just before the break.

It isn’t easy to discern the end-of-season Top Four, so unpredictable are the results. Apart from the Bears it’s Saracens who look the odds-on contenders again, joined by any of Exeter, Harlequins and Wasps.

Quins are not the force they were. The loss of Ward and Riley was severe for them, but with stars like Rachael Burford, Sarah Beckett and Jess Breach restored to the strength they shouldn’t find games like their Round-4 clash with Glos-Pury such a battle.

Playing strength

One of my recurrent complaints over the past four seasons has been the unending movement of players from weaker to stronger clubs. For the individual it is entirely justified; for the well-being of the league much more questionable.

This season has seen a slight turning of the tide, led by those two significant moves westward of Riley and Ward, but the main thrust is still towards the most powerful clubs, not least between them, for example Bryony Cleall, Ellie Kildunne, Emma Swords and Rosie Galligan.

Loughborough are one club that has found life tough. They lost DaLeaka Menin and Liv Jones to Exeter, Ella Wyrwas (back) to Sarries and Amelia Harper to Quins. In Round One Emily Scarratt was listed at No 10, but she broke her leg in the opening minutes. Their young side has had to weather the storm.

Sale have not yet found take-off. Their position stands as a warning to all prospective applicants for membership of the elite. I survey the problem again below.

More tight games?

Of the 25 games played thus far five have shown margins of 7 points or fewer (losing bonus point achieved). At the other end of the scale six matches have finished with a 50+ points margin. Apart from DMPDS, the eternal victims (four times), Lightning and Sale have suffered such a reverse.

The administrators of the Prem 15s website like to advertise the number of tries scored above all else.

What do defence coaches make of that?

The DMPDS question

The 3-year status quo the RFU saddled itself with at the founding of the Prem 15s continues. It brings great difficulties – there is no chance to adjust mid-stream. The decisions made at the last review have long-term effects. Are we going to see DMPDS suffering an average of 80-point losses right through to the end of next season? And after that? There were two major reasons for the club remaining at elite level: its previous standards of performance (several leading Red Roses) and its geographical position.

If its licence was not renewed, either the north-east would become a no-go area for elite women’s rugby or it would have to combine with Newcastle Falcons. But that would still require an influx of players of the quality the club had a few years ago.

There is an interesting parallel in France, where Ovalie Caen requested to leave the Elite 1 programme after repeated heavy losses. If the 3-year freeze is written in stone, then DMPDS and the RFU are denied that option.

The aspirant clubs

Clubs wishing to join, that is the Gallagher Premiership clubs not already in the mix, have to find quality players from somewhere.

The two latest to join, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks, followed two differing policies: Chiefs looked abroad; Sharks bought in from Celtic lands and locally (especially one of the rejected clubs, Firwood Waterloo). They have won 5 games out of 23 since their debut.

In Round Five Exeter’s 23 contained 14 players not qualified for England. Susie Appleby knew from the outset her side wouldn’t stand a chance without that input. Sale have at least 15 non-England qualified players on their books.

A few of the outsiders have already begun a talent search, one that looks much like the academy approach. Highly qualified coaches such as Graham Smith (London Irish) and Kat Merchant and Kim Oliver (Ealing Trailfinders) know they cannot build a team capable of holding its own in the AP 15s without bringing in the necessary quality from elsewhere, that is abroad.

So I repeat my query: will the day dawn when the RFU has to place a limit on the number of overseas players? If they see part of their remit as supporting the Celtic unions as far as they can, then that is honourable and fine.

A Look Ahead

While our attention is captured by the autumn internationals, it would be a pity of the Allianz Cup was dismissed to the shadows. The performance of the players involved will be a telling indication of the strength in depth of the ten elite clubs.