Kicking off the new season with Nicky Ponsford
The announcement on Monday last week that the Premier 15s would be kicking off imminently, with a new title sponsor and a host of temporary new laws was greeted with widespread joy from rugby fans, not least as it was a return toward normality. As one of the key figures in getting the league back Nicky Ponsford the RFU’s head of women’s performance has all the insight into what we can expect. We caught up with Nicky ahead of the opening round of fixtures to see how she was feeling and what she was looking forward to most.
“I think this season is going to be incredibly exciting because we don’t know quite what to expect! We’ve got new teams coming in, a number of players joining the league who add quality to what we have… I think there will be a few twists and turns but I’m just looking forward to some great rugby!” When we speak a day ahead of the season kicking off Nicky is clearly enthused about finally getting the season going after nearly eight months without a Premier 15s game. With the men’s Premiership heading into the playoffs this was ideal timing for the women’s game to return and offer fans of club rugby something to enjoy.
Among rugby die-hards the revised laws have been a key talking point, noticeably the changes to reduce scrums, something Nicky was keen to comment on. “As a front row forward, it was vitally important (to me) that we did maintain some scrums. It isn’t rugby union without set pieces in the game. The way it works is unique to union, but we had to mitigate risk and all the analysis we did showed the scrum was the biggest risk, so we had to reduce numbers!” Scrums are a vital part of rugby as Nicky says, but for those watching for the first time the scrum can be confusing too, so a free-flowing game may well appeal to first time viewers. Certainly, if the first weekend is a fair example, we still got scrums and, because of their relative scarcity, the became events within the game and the front rows glee was evident when the opportunities came along!
The law changes will be reviewed after round 9 so if all goes well props will get their set pieces back for Christmas.
Of course, first time viewers might find it easier to take in rugby in this new form, but for that they need to be able to see the games, something that Nicky is all too aware of. “We were really conscious that the men’s game came back and because people were able to watch it maintained momentum. As the women’s game has gone from strength to strength over the last few years, we were keen to maintain that momentum, in terms of people talking about it and being able to view the games. There’s a live stream each week for the first four rounds. We’re in discussions with broadcasters that are ongoing and pretty positive, we hope to be able to update everybody as soon as we have a resolution and from there, we can understand how many games we would be able to show. We probably don’t have an agreement within the next few weeks so streaming those games gets us moving in the right direction.” In the meantime, clubs have started to step up and offer their own streams too, this week both Sale and Saracens put streams out on their own platforms, the latter even laying on their own brand of commentary courtesy of Bryony Cleall and Hannah Botterman.
Allianz have taken on the title sponsor role for the Premier 15s this season which, we’re told, will lead to increased content across the Premier 15s and Red Roses courtesy of a sponsor who is engaged in building the profile of the women’s game, they’ll be getting involved in grassroots rugby too. With the Premier 15s development league being removed it’s imperative that the community game gets up and running as soon as it is safe. One of the reasons the development league was dropped was to push those players in the championship and help to strengthen that competition. The laws being trialled over these first 9 games may well provide part of the route back to getting men, women and children across the country back on the pitch for their local clubs.
It’s early days for this new approach but based on one weekend it’s shaping up to be an exciting season in the new look Allianz Premier 15s!