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Bringing the Craic to the Allianz Premier 15s

By Matt Merritt
The London Irish Women's Emeralds line up ahead of a match. Credit: Matt Merritt

With the delayed 2021 World Cup imminent and the new Allianz Premier 15s season on the horizon, interest in women’s rugby has never been higher. This will be the last season of the current iteration of England’s top women’s league and there are a host of parties interested in joining it in 2023/2024.

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Leicester Tigers, Bath and Ealing Trailfinders have all been vocal with their intent but in West London another team is busy building their own bid for a place at the table.

London Irish announced their intent to join the Premier 15s a little over a year ago, with Graham Smith, the World Cup winning forwards coach for the Red Roses, announced as a key member of the team to deliver elite women’s rugby to the club.

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Smith set about delivering camps and building on the player base within London Irish amateurs and their promotion winning Emeralds who secured a place in Championship 1 South for the upcoming season.

It was a canny move that resulted in an impressive side who won the Championship 2 South West at a canter, taking wins in all 16 fixtures and confirming the set up as a key piece in the player pathway, which can only go for them in their Premier 15s bid.

The Exiles today released a press release announcing their impressive women’s coaching line up and wider ambitions as a club.

Former England 7s captain and England 15s player Abi Chamberlain is already part of the amateur coaching team and will carry that role over to the elite set up where she will be joined by former Black Fern Lydia Kerr who moved to the UK as head coach at Durham University before a playing spell with Wasps Women.

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They’ll be joined by Karen Findlay, the 85 cap Scotland international who was so integral to Harlequins Women becoming one of the dominant forces in the Allianz Premier 15s. When she’s not marshalling the Metropolitan Police at major events in her role as Commander, she’s been found on many a touchline as an impressive coach at Quins and before that Richmond.

Chamberlain is excited to see what the club can do, harnessing the amazing performances that have seen them achieve successive promotions for the last four seasons. “We’re a club with big dreams, talent, and the passion to create a positive pathway for women playing the sport we love.  The chance to evolve that opportunity into the Premier 15s competition is a natural and exciting next step for us. I can’t wait for the season ahead!”

Director of Women’s Rugby Mary Fyfe spoke of the vision and ethos which the club lives by: “London Irish is more than rugby. We’re a professional and amateur club, working to create a ‘no barriers’ opportunity for women and girls to play rugby, at every level. We are proud to be working collaboratively together and with key partners for the good of women’s rugby and women’s sport more broadly.

“We’ve taken our time to grow our pathways and potential to add the next tier of women’s rugby to the club. We’ve spent the last seven years steadily growing our community game to achieve a Championship 1 place and feel the next obvious and progressive step for the club is to introduce a Premier 15s tier.”

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As various clubs state their intent to join the league, the necessity to build a competitive team is of high priority.

Talent identification has been key to Smith’s work since joining the club and over the past year he has attempted to find players who may have slipped through the net of existing teams or have transferable skillsets from other sports.

At one of London Irish’s talent acquisition days, a Gaelic football and boxing coach were brought in to look at players in order to get a perspective outside of rugby.

“It’s a well-worn phrase, but I think you have to think outside the box with what we look for and how we assess players,” Smith explained, diving into his process for assessing talent. “I think a lot of the time rugby coaches focus on what players do on the ball, but the coach with a Gaelic football background was really focused on what they do off the ball. Another coach within boxing gave us a really clear indication of which players had mobility, good footwork and strong evasion tactics as well as balance and body management skills.

“It gave us a different set of views. There are some good young players there, I’m not saying they’ll play in the Premier 15s in two seasons time, but I think one or two are future internationals that have been missed. Our job now is to maximise their potential!”

It’s a technique that has paid off with a player base including Mexico 7s international Jenn Salomon as well as players such as Amy Montague and Hayley Sasserath who have spent time with Harlequins Women and former Premier 15s team Firwood Waterloo respectively.

That base grows wider as London Irish women deliver the women’s rugby programme at St Mary’s University (where players like Harlequins Izzy Mayhew developed their rugby) and are adding to that by working with Winchester College, the historic education centre, forming a south coast hub for training and recruitment.

They also hope to tap into the black, Asian and minority ethnic community in West London through a partnership with Hayes & Yeading Football Club.

There’s a long history of player development at London Irish, with England men’s teams littered with talent that was nurtured at the club’s Hazelwood training centre. Sunbury hasn’t just been home to great male talent though, as RugbyPass recently discovered.

“I was at London Irish when I was ten!” Red Roses prop Sarah Bern told us during a recent event at Pennyhill Park. “I was there with Alex Matthews; it was a really cool team at the time with lots of good players.”

When asked about the possibility of her old team being future opponents in the Premier 15s, she said: “That’s exciting for me. It’s where I started my journey and I think if they put in a good bid, it could be really exciting!”

Ultimately though, their bid will come down to how they stack up to the local opposition. “[If Irish are added to the Premier 15s] there will be more equally supported, similarly placed, clubs fishing in the same pond,” said Fyfe when discussing that Ealing have also signalled their intent to be involved in the Premier 15s.

“The question for a player then becomes ‘which team do I want to play for?’ and it won’t always be Quins. Especially if the other teams can show they are competing at the top end of the table. It can’t be the Quins and Saracens show every year.”

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Poorfour 4 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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