Emma Swords on The Allianz Cup, Harlequins Women’s season so far and more.
The Allianz Cup kicks off this week, a new cup competition to sit alongside the Premier 15s and give players who aren’t called up for international games some competitive rugby when the league would normally be paused. The format sees the league split into two groups, with the top two teams from each going on to play-offs and eventually a cup final in late April.
Ahead of the first round we caught up with Harlequins Women scrum half Emma Swords to find out how preparations are going.
We start off with a bit of chat around the cup. I’ve been curious to see whether teams would approach it purely as a competition to be won or would use it as an opportunity to give players who hadn’t featured thus far some quality game time. In my head I pictured Quins opting to blood some younger players and help others return from injury.
“We’ve got very good depth players and of course there will be some girls getting a run out for the first time this season, but we will be going out to win!” Emma tells me, driving home the determination head coach Gerard Mullen has built into his squad, an attitude that saw Harlequins Women wrest the league title away from Saracens in a thrilling final at Kingsholm back in May.
Swords, who re-joined Harlequins Women in the summer from Saracens, is no stranger to winning mentalities having featured consistently for both teams in the Premier 15. She believes that the league is going from strength to strength and that this bodes well for the new competition.
“We’ve all seen a massive step up in standards across the whole league. Top teams are being beaten by clubs who were in the bottom two last year. I don’t think anyone wants to go into a cup competition and have any less ambition to win it just because the international players are away.”
Harlequins will certainly be looking to bounce back after a loss at home to Bristol Bears that will have been tough to take. There have been a few tough conversations at training sessions, but the squad have put that game behind them and are laser focused on their next fixture.
That focus is a key feature of winning teams, something Swords knows only too well as she’s spent most of her career thus far with Saracens Women, barring a season with Harlequins due to work commitments. She talks a lot about the parallels between the two teams, both have a core of world class players, but work together as a single unit to achieve their successes. “I’m very fortunate to have experienced being in two top teams, and with both we’ve had similar discussions. For a lot of games our opponents treat it like their cup final. They want to beat the teams at the top of the league.”
Another key feature of top teams, whether in the league or at international level, is established partnerships and among those the way a scrum half links up with their 10 always seems vital to me. So I’m interested in how Emma is finding playing alongside Emily Scott and in a Quins system that favours ball in hand time more than she will have been used to at Saracens.
“It gets tiring!” She says with a chuckle. “I love fast rugby, southern hemisphere games were all I watched really while growing up. Scotty is such a threat to defensive lines with the way she likes to play and something Gerard has been teaching me with how Quins like to play – we mirror what the men do in terms of playing speed over shape, we want to play very fast rugby – teams have now picked up on that and we’re facing huge defensive sets from the likes of Exeter so that combination with Scotty has been really fun to build on, even against testing defences. It’s something I think Gerard will stick with, we want that pace. But I can confirm it does pay a toll on the lungs at times!”
It feels like there’s a change coming in the league though. The traditional Saracens v Harlequins final no longer feels like a given and the competition for a playoff place has never been so intense. Exeter Chiefs Women narrowly missed out last year so will want to do one better and Bristol Bears Women feel like a whole new side and one intent on winning it all.
Before I let Emma go about her day we chat about the Big Game and how important it is for Harlequins Women to get that exposure. Swords shows a good understanding of the business side of rugby as she’s very honest that today women’s league games don’t pay for themselves and the club will make a loss on most home games now they are played at the Stoop. She thinks double headers are a sensible business decision right now to build exposure and expose more rugby fans to the women’s game. It’s no surprise she pays attention to this as she runs her own business, Boncee, making and selling bucket hats and scrunchies for teams across myriad sports.
There’s opportunity there too though, Harlequins Women play some superb rugby and with the autumn nations games on BBC Two women’s rugby is more accessible than ever so audiences should only rise and with Emma and her teammates inspiring young players to pick up a ball and play the future looks bright for women’s rugby in West London!
Harlequins Women, in group one, kick off their cup competition away at DMP Durham Sharks while Gloucester-Hartpury host Bristol Bears and Wasps have a bye week.
In group two Sale Sharks Women are at home to Loughborough Lightning, Saracens travel to Worcester Warriors and Exeter Chiefs Women have the week off.
In week two Harlequins will host Gloucester-Hartpury and we’ll be there so look out for our coverage.