Cheap Seats Sports’ big Allianz Premier 15s semi final preview!
The days are warming up (allegedly), crowds are returning to stadiums and for the Allianz Premier 15s it’s play off time! The top four teams across the league face off on Saturday with the two winners travelling to Gloucester the following weekend where one team will be crowned league champions. In previous seasons Harlequins Women have played the bridesmaids to Saracens Women but both teams will fancy their chances and with home advantage this weekend they’ll be hoping to fend off Wasps Ladies and Loughborough Lightning respectively. I caught up with four forwards from across the teams for an insight into the games this weekend.
The early kick-off on Saturday sees Harlequins juggernaut power game against the dazzling feet and cavalier play of Wasps. Quins Fi Fletcher has, once again been a key piece in their impressive pack. She’s the sort of player who doesn’t have any interest in personal glory but gives her all for the betterment of the team. The sort of player every team needs, and every fan loves for their willingness to give every last bit of effort and energy to the cause.
“It’s disappointing that we haven’t managed to finish top” Fletcher says, sharing the team’s goal to end the season in first place, “but I think we’ve really improved as a team over the season. It’s been really pleasing to see that journey from the start to where we are now. I think the exciting thing for us is that we haven’t put together a full 70 minute performance yet, in defence or attack… so I’m hoping we can get close to that come the playoffs.”
Harlequins fans will be in attendance for this game and Fletcher sees this as a big boost for her side. “It’s a great opportunity for our family and friends to come and watch. Loads of the games have been livestreamed – to varying quality – but I feel like they’ve missed out so it will be good to have them there!”
As for the opposition, Fi’s feelings are pretty clear… “We seem to have some really good games against Wasps, don’t we! They’ve been close, high skill and exciting… I’m expecting more of the same!”
“They’ve got some real threats all over the park, their backline can be electric so we need to do what we can in defence to shut down their options. I’m sure they’ll be looking at the Quins team and thinking they’ve got threats everywhere too, so it should make for a really competitive game, which is what everyone wants to see!
Over at Twyford Avenue Wasps Ladies are well underway in preparation for the trip to the Stoop and Hannah West was kind enough to give me an insight. The powerful front row tells a similar story of the growth in the squad over the course of the season and how the last couple of rounds, with internationals and 7s players dipping in and out of the squad, have shown the strength in depth the team can bring to bear.
For Hannah herself it hasn’t been the easiest of seasons. “I had a couple of months out with a hamstring injury that set me back a bit. I got back to playing just this side of Christmas and it’s been really good. There’s others who’ve been injured too but we’ve been a support unit for each other which is really nice to have.”
West is a key figure in an underrated pack, the downside of a team whose backline seems to be a permanent fixture on highlight reels. “We’re probably one of the lighter packs in the league, which makes us quite mobile, but we’re not afraid to get into the dirty, gritty work! We create the platform for our outstanding backs to use, so the better we do that the more wins we have!”
The last two meetings between the clubs have seen Quins emerge the visitors but Wasps have closed the gap considerably, the first game being a fairly comfortable victory and the second going down to the wire. “We had a lot of learning, a lot of game management insight” Hannah says, when asked what the takeaways have been from those fixtures. “Leading up to this one we’re in a better space to be able to use our strengths because we’ve experienced how they play.”
Hannah is, naturally, confident that she and her colleagues can progress and as such our chat veers to the other fixture. She stops short of predicting a victor, but does mention that Wasps have victories against Sarries and Lightning to their names this season. It’s clear though that whoever emerges from that game, Wasps feel ready to take them on!
We head to Loughborough next and get a different perspective on the season. Abby Duguid is playing her first season in the AP15s but the young Canadian has hit the ground running and quietly impressed with her attitude and effort.
As a player new to the league and to the country I was intrigued how Abby found her experience on these shores. “It’s been such a dramatic change from playing at home. The overall level of play, the amount of teams… Coming from Canada, the university league is the highest you get to before playing for the national teams. Seasons are short too, you only get maybe six games and then it’s done. Here there’s so much time to grow and develop as a team. You get lots of games and there are world class athletes across the league!”
It was certainly a baptism of fire for Duguid. “I was quite nervous coming over. I had injured myself a year prior so my first game with the Lightning was 14 months post injury. Coming into an environment like this made the return so much easier, I didn’t have to struggle with finding my footing I was thrown into the mix and my team mates helped me be ready to go.”
Abby will be heading back to Canada when the season is done, to see out her studies and play one more time with her old team the Pronghorns, but before then she is focused on the game ahead. “We feel prepared and ready to go, we’re just fixing those little details, so we don’t have any unforeseen issues. We haven’t underestimated Saracens. We know they have outstanding players and their physicality will be a challenge for us but we’re been working hard together so we can match that.”
“They have some big bodies, very skilled players in the contact area. I think if we can push them and push the edges we have the speed out on the fringes to get moving. Our attack can be really dynamic when we are flowing and we have options, whether we want to go through the middle or out wide, to read what’s ahead of us. I think we’re ready, I think we’re gonna do great. The team has been knocking on the door for the past few years and we’re ready to knock it down!”
And next season, does Abby plan on returning to the league once her studies are completed? “That’s the plan. The only roadblock I’m facing is graduating. I want to be done with that before the World Cup so I have my best opportunity to make that team and I’m not worried about school.!”
Last, but certainly not least come the reigning champs. Once again Saracens sit atop the table as the regular season ends. Once again they are the favourites to win it all. While it’s been a few years of winning for the team Rosie Galligan has faced a number of personal hurdles, but she’s back to fitness, firing on all cylinders and will be a key piece in their push to make it three winning seasons on the bounce.
“It’s definitely been a stop-start season. Starting to progress, falling back slightly and then recovering due to the way the season has been structured. We’ve kind of aligned with that, some weeks we haven’t come out fully firing. We’re feeling very confident though, we’ve got the England girls back, all the other internationals from the Six Nations teams too… It’s a really good environment where we’re all pushing for those starting shirts. We’ve got Hannah and Bryony (Botterman & Cleall) back from injury as well, that’s another boost for us bringing some extra experience into the front row to add to what we have with Rocky. Having a bit more strength in depth now, we feel we’re in a good place going into the semi-finals.”
That strength in depth will be key, with details on the involvement of GB7s players still not confirmed at the time of writing. All four teams have a number of players involved but Saracens probably have fewer key positions impacted than their opponents on the weekend.
For Rosie herself it’s not been an easy couple of years but to my eyes at least she seems to be returning to the form that earned her international honours previously. “Something this week really clicked in me. I’ve struggled over the last few weeks finding a bit of love for rugby again… the season has been so long and there’s not been so much socialising, it’s been a really weird environment. One of the main reasons I got into rugby was because I love the social aspects of it. So yeah, it’s been quite a frustrating season for me but I’ve found my feet these past two weeks and I’m really excited to showcase what I can do and what I can give for the team!”
“A big pack who want to carry hard, but also that finesse out the back, trying to get around the edges.” Is how Galligan describes Lighting. “They can offer something pretty much everywhere on the pitch, they’ve got the likes of Scaz, they’ve got DaLeaka Menin in the forwards… they’ve got presence everywhere. We’re going to have to be in top form to progress to the finals but we’re so ready for it!”
By the time their game kicks off Saracens and Loughborough will know who has made the final from the other game. Rosie thinks it will be a difficult game to predict (and I agree) but the presence of the 7s players might change things as the likes of Meg Jones can singlehandedly give opposition teams a bad day. That’s telling of a step forward in quality across the league. Galligan reference Exeter Chiefs impressive debut season a couple of times and points to their form as an example of the Premier 15s being much more than a runaway league now.
Whoever makes it past this weekend will find themselves playing at Kingsholm on the 30th, with fans in the stands and, perhaps most importantly, BT Sport broadcasting the game live on one of their main channels. “I think it’s great!” Rosie says of this news. “It’s needed because we’re still recovering from a pandemic and not all our friends or family will be able to come and support in the way they would like. Being able to get together at home with good quality coverage – good camera angles, good comms – will make it a great experience for them. We can get to a wider audience too, it will be interesting to see whether people decide to have that stay at home experience or come and join the crowd (in the stadium) but either way I think it’s fab for women’s rugby and will pave the way for the years to come!”
I’m too much of a coward to try and predict the outcome, but what I do expect is two entertaining and engaging games of rugby and if you’re not there in person then do yourselves a favour and watch along on the BT Sport app or via Premier15s.com!