The AP 15s – Ways Forward

  • +1

News of three important signings prompts me to start plotting possible routes into the future of the Premier 15s.

Alev Kelter, quite possibly America’s greatest player, joins Sarries; Gabby Senft (Canada) and Hope Rogers (USA) have signed on at Exeter.

They add a few more knots to the heavy thinking the RFU has to do about the future of elite women’s club rugby. In fact they have probably been burning the midnight oil for a long while now. Fitting it out in its new suit for next year won’t be easy. They are due to debate the issues this month.

The signings touch on at least two central issues, Levelling up Standards, and my favourite, Where do Clubs find their Players?

Levelling up Standards

There is no doubt that the alterations the RFU made between the three-year cycles 1 and 2 in 2020 have raised standards. At the same time there are glimpses of a levelling up between the ten clubs.

A comparison: at the New Year of the 2017-18 season the top two clubs (Sarries and Quins) had lost one game between them; this season the top two (Sarries and Bristol) have lost four (both seasons suffered a few postponements). The gap between first and sixth in 2018 was 23 points; this season only 12.

But the news of those signings only adds to disquiet about the inequalities of the league. Do Sarries really need another international centre? They already have Alysha Corrigan, Cara Wardle, Chantelle Miell , Ella Wyrwas, Hannah Casey, Holly Aitchison, Lotte Clapp, Rachel Laqeretabua, Sarah McKenna, Zoe Harrison et al to solve their problems out behind. How many more points would they have scored against DMPDS last weekend (104-0) with Kelter next to unstoppable in the centre?

Exeter have added two more overseas players to their roster. That makes eleven North American players. Susie Appleby commented: ‘We’re ready to support them both (Rogers and Senft) as they prepare for the world cup’. Whether it’s in the interests of the English to support the efforts of other nations like this is an open question.

Imagine the AP 15s being run by a benevolent dictator. Then you could be sure that all three players would have been sent north to DMPDS, no questions asked. That would be meaningful levelling-up.

The RFU is not the only organisation finding this laudable aim hard to achieve. Sarries and Exeter have clout, and that impacts directly on the problem. All ten managements are intent on finishing as high as possible in the league, a final-four position the minimum. But only a very few can attract top talent at a moment’s notice.

Where do the clubs find their players?

For the moment I’ll leave aside the question of likely applicant clubs (Bath, London Irish, etc).

Exeter set the pattern of looking abroad for their squad. Their secondary aim was to build up local strength through an academy and links to nearby tertiary colleges. But the addition of yet more overseas players begs the question: when does the process stop?

The latest version of their starting 15 (Round 10) contained precisely three England-qualified players: Merryn Doidge, Flo Robinson and Poppy Leitch. In a fanciful moment you could imagine Leitch losing her place in the back row to Senft, to build a completely non-English pack.

That’s where Tony Rowe’s millions and his benevolent attitude toward women’s rugby can get you.

Sarries too keep mopping up top-quality players in their quest for glory. Will Quins feel the need to follow suit? What does our benevolent dictator say about that? It’s a nice boost to England’s ego to find so many overseas players wanting to join in, but the ultimate purpose of the Prem 15s was to raise English standards, and specifically the Red Roses.