Premier 15s are back! We preview the return of elite women’s rugby.
The Premier 15s are back! The elite women’s rugby competition kicks off this weekend with some notable changes! The TP15s becomes the AP15s with Allianz Insurance coming onboard as title sponsors. The league kicks off on October 10th with a new title, two new teams and, for the foreseeable future, a few new laws too. Ahead of the season start we caught up with a few teams who will be looking to topple Saracens and Harlequins from their spots atop the table!
Of course, as much as we cannot wait for the league to return the primary concern is player safety and team welfare. As such the league is instigating a series of temporary law variations to include removing the option for a scrum at penalties and free kicks, teams having to play the ball when the maul stops once and only players competing at the lineout being able to join the maul. These and a number of other changes will significantly reduce the face-to-face contact between players.
These changes will be reviewed after round 9 but they mean that the first half of the league is likely to provide the most wide-open, free-flowing rugby you’re likely to find on these shores!
Safety was on the players minds ahead of the league kicking off, Gloucester-Hartpury’s England scrum-half Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt was unequivocal about how she feels. “We’re all just desperate to get back to some kind of normality!” Of course that’s a new normal that’s very covid-conscious and, in this league’s case, one where players will not automatically be tested by their clubs. “The onus is on us, if you’ve got any kind of symptom then stay away!” Mo says. It will undoubtedly be concerning for some staff and players but everyone we spoke to has nothing but praise for the way their clubs and the league had handled preparations so far.
Gloucester’s director of rugby Sean Lynn was clear that the changes won’t change his approach and that team selection will be based on planning for the opposition and how best to get one over on them. For all the prolonged delay has been difficult he certainly spies some advantages. “Having lockdown and the pandemic going on has actually helped us, we’ve not been able to travel so we’ve been spending a lot of time doing analysis over Teams and Zoom which has really benefitted us” Fitness and set piece will be key, as will adapting to the changing rules but Lynn prides himself on taking teams out of their comfort zones and clearly sees his first full season in the league as an exciting opportunity!
Over in west London Wasps are champing at the bit to get going too. Talismanic captain Kate Alder is clear on her feelings about the rule changes, covid support and other off-field activities. “If we’re some of the lucky few who get to start rugby this side of Christmas we’ll do whatever we’re told to!”
That means that the club has had to have a strict line on players returning their information and communicating updates. “I’ve never known anything like it!” Giselle Mather tells us. The Wasps DoR has had to turn players away from training for incomplete information, just one part of a whole host of new administrative activities that have completely changed her role, but as expected she sees the value completely.
“To keep the players safe, to keep my staff safe and all the people connected to them… I’ve never worked so many hours off the field in my life. It’s been 24/7 but it is to get this game up and running, to allow the players to express themselves. It’s a critical year for us with a world cup coming up, not just for the players in the squad but for the nature of how the womens game goes – a successful world cup filters down to the grass roots level and little girls want to get their boots on when they see their stars winning world cups!”
For me Wasps have been fascinating as Giselle has long promoted a fast, free-flowing & frankly gorgeous brand of rugby and now she has added to her arsenal with a number of players from the England 7s programme. When I ask her what this means for her team her face lights up! £I’m so excited! The difference they have brought to the group has been immense – standards have gone up and the way that ball moves across the field is fantastic! With nobody in front of us it’s been a bit special to see! Obviously with people trying to prevent us doing what we do it might be different, but it’s been great. The current squad have really welcomed them and I’d say they’re proper Waspies now!”
Kate echoes the sentiment. “It’s not just their individual talent but what they expect of and bring out of other people on the field. Some of our players are performing in a way they haven’t before because of these players being around them. They’re creating a new normal for us and the standard is very high!”
Our last stop of the day takes us to Loughborough where Lightning head director of rugby Rhys Edwards is focused on the club’s goal as the premier developer of talent in the league. When asked about Allianz coming onboard he admits it was a bit of a “WOW!” moment for him. “Starting the Premier 15s three years ago was a statement of intent. With someone like Allianz and their history in sport and in particular rugby, it’s an opportunity to take the brand further!”
Scotland international Rachel Malcolm sees this season as a real opportunity for the club “The law variations probably suit the style of rugby we want to play. Our aim is to always go one better so if we can make it to the final this year that would be a massive step forward for us as a squad. It’s important for us to keep developing as players and as a squad. If we keep doing that our performances should take care of themselves.”
“Before we started we put out a bold statement saying we wanted to be the number one performance development centre in the world for young aspirational players. To be able to do that and also support the world class player we had in Sarah Hunter and then of course Katy (Daley-Mclean and Emily Scarratt who came to us in year two.” Rhys tells me, making it clear that their semi-final loss to Quins back in 2019 was the catalyst to the team regrouping and pushing on.
Loughborough lost Katy to newcomers Sale during the summer, but in Scarratt they have an unequalled rugby talent, with a gifted young team around her. They’ve been the closest to joining the top tier in the league the past two seasons and will be aiming to follow their own philosophy and take that extra step.
Three teams, with three very different approaches to the game, but all three are focused on trying to topple the teams who have dominated the top of the table in past seasons. Nearly nine months have passed since the whistle blew to end the last Premier 15s game, these teams will be looking to kick on as if they had never stopped. Having seen the intensity and passion in their coaches and players I certainly wouldn’t bet against any of them!
The Allianz Premier 15s kick off on Saturday 10th October with the first round of fixtures below. At the time of writing there was no news on whether any games would be broadcast
14:00 – Bristol Bears v Wasps FC
14:00 – Saracens v Worcester Warriors
14:30 – Gloucester Hartpury v Exeter Chiefs
15:00 – Sale Sharks v Loughborough Lightning
16:00 – Harlequins v DMP Durham Sharks