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And then there were four: Everything’s in place for a spectacular Premier 15s sprint finish

By Claire Thomas
Taken during the Allianz Premier match between Bristol Bears and Loughborough Lightning at the Shaftsbury Park, Bristol, England on 17rd December 2022. Credit: Ben Lumley Photography.

And then there were four.

Gloucester-Hartpury: The table toppers. The first-placers. The cherry and white history makers, who made a statement on day one and have hit headlines like Neve Jones hits rucks ever since. The circus, whose be-scrunchied ringmaster dazzles, whose flyers are physics-defying, and whose strong women have marched them to the summit of the standings.

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Exeter Chiefs: The defenders of Fortress Sandy Park. The most prolific and the most impenetrable. The side whose squad is a tapestry of superstars from across the globe and home-hewn heroes, and who’re itching to put right the wrongs of last year’s final and add a Premier 15s trophy to the Allianz Cup nestled in their coffers. The outfit who’ve fought tooth and nail to ensure a home tie this weekend, and whose fans are always high volume in both senses of the word.

Saracens: The reigning champions: a title they’ve held for almost the entirety of the league’s existence. The side who haven’t lost since January, and who know exactly what it takes to win this thing. The wolfpack, who’ve stalked their way from seventh to third since Christmas, and have won their last meetings with each of the other playoff participants. The team richest in record-writing Red Roses, and for whom shorter summer breaks have proven a small price to pay for the stars on their jerseys.

Bristol Bears: And the underdogs on paper who aren’t necessarily underdogs at all. The team no one’s talking about as contenders, but who have quietly gone about some stunning performances of late – almost picking the pockets of Saracens in their own back yard, and doing the unthinkable in coming from behind against an Exeter side with an infamous sprint finish. The pack (or backfield: both apply here) which contains Sarah Bern, too – which makes them, by definition, dangerous. The team who can beat anyone on their day.

That’s some cast for a season finale, and there are a plethora of factors which make this penultimate weekend unmissable.

Saturday 10th June- Gloucester Hartpury v Bristol at Kingsholm
Sunday 11th June- Exeter Chiefs v Saracens at Sandy Park

Firstly – it’ll literally be quite hard to miss, with live coverage on BT Sport, BBC iPlayer and .com, and Premier15s channels on both the Saturday and Sunday. Kick off’s at 3pm each afternoon, so – if you can’t get to a game – clear your diary, stock up the fridge, set an alarm, and settle on down.

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Secondly – we’re guaranteed a first-time finalist, and could even – by the end of Sunday – be guaranteed a first-time champion. Chiefs broke the Saracens-Harlequins finals duopoly last year: imagine if we had a third name on the trophy by July. Even if we don’t, the make-up of the final four is an exhilarating reflection of how open the league is becoming, which only bodes well for next season and beyond.

Thirdly – there will be 92 brilliant athletes in action, from as many as ten nations. These squads include three recent World Player of the Year nominees, the 2021 winner of that accolade, five of the eight forwards from the 2022 World Rugby Dream Team (six, if we count Abbie Ward), five recipients of a Six Nations player of the match award this spring, and all three contenders for this season’s RPA Premier 15s Player of the Year gong.

Those don’t even include the likes of Kate Zackary, Lleucu George, Amber Reed, or Jess Breach – who all single-handedly get bums on seats and set hearts racing. Quality: wall-to-wall and all the way from Kingsholm to Sandy Park.

Fourthly – both matches have plenty of spice about them. Gloucester-Hartpury up against Bristol is bhuna levels: a West Country derby between a pair who pride themselves on their ability to entertain, and who are hellbent on punching their ticket to the final. Sean Lynn’s women are favourites – hosting a side they’ve done the double over this season, and with a formidable squad at their disposal – but Bears throw a kitchen sink as well as anyone. The pressure’s all on the cherry and whites, too: they’ve home advantage in both knockout fixtures, and their mightily impressive last seven months suggest that Saturday is theirs to lose.

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The irrepressible Dave Ward is quick to point out that Bristol took the spoils in their Allianz Cup bronze medal match, but how much can be read into that is debatable. Both rotated heavily last weekend, so their big names will be chomping at the bit, and fresh legs only elevate their mutual ability to grace a rugby pitch with out-and-out razzamatazz. Hunt-George-Heard versus Bevan-Snowswill-Reed? Mouth-watering. Sing and Lovibond in space? Where do I sign? The prospect of Muir, Tuipulotu, Bern and Pam all competing to see who can play the least like a prop? Magic.

Chiefs versus Saracens is a jalfrezi, if not a vindaloo. It’s a rematch of last year’s final – when the women in black’s performance was majestic, and Exeter were left desperately disappointed with their own. They’re better for the experience, many of them have said, and it’d be even sweeter if the Devonians’ romp to a first league title included knocking the reigning champions out of the competition. They’re a ruthless outfit this year: Susie Appleby has recruited outstandingly, and their statistics really are the pick of the bunch. They’ll have their work cut out, though: Saracens will not relinquish the throne of English rugby readily, and are more motivated than ever.

They’ve had to plumb the depths of their resilience this campaign – Alex Austerberry’s said that this would be the most precious and hard-fought triumph yet – but will arrive at Sandy Park bristling with intent: relishing the challenge of needing to overturn Chiefs there for the very first time, and eyes locked on the target of proving their doubters wrong.

Despite what my spell-checker is telling me, I don’t think ‘fifthly’ is a real word, so let’s wrap things up, but there are some other Fs which feel appropriate to end with. Fitting, finale, and fever-pitch encapsulate the whole weekend very nicely. Saturday will bring together two outfits laden with flair and firepower, and Sunday promises to be ferocious between familiar foes. It’s finally finals time.

What’s gone before matters, of course, but it also really doesn’t. Any of these teams could pull together 160 irresistible minutes and win the whole Premier 15s, and that’s thrilling. These are the best four sides in the league, and the margins for error only narrow as the stakes get higher and the intensity cranks up. Moments will define entire seasons, and chances have to be taken.

No one has ever taken them better than Saracens, but Gloucester-Hartpury finished top. Then again – Chiefs shattered the league’s record points difference, and Bristol are devastating when things click.

It’s all to play for. The pacemaker of the regular season has stepped off the track and the bell’s sounding: there’s a lead pack of four, and it’s time to see who’s got something audacious and all-conquering left in the tank.

It’s time to thin the field yet again: only two will reach the home straight, and the burn up promises to be spectacular.

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1 Comment
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Antony 381 days ago

Love that! Won't add an f word of my own, but a great read to set the pulse going for these matches. Can't wait, and consider me pumped up!

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