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'Death, taxes, the sky is blue and Sean Lynn wearing shorts': AP15s what we know so far

By Claire Thomas
Post-match interview with Gloucester-Hartpury's coach Sean Lynn in shorts. Photo credit: Toggin Welsh

There are a few things we know for certain so far in this season’s Premier 15s:
Sadiya Kabeya contains some sort of self-fuelling tackle engine – which is how she can just go, and go, and go. The patent for this magical device is owned by Kate Zackary, I’ve heard, who’s also allowed Lilli Ives Campion a peek at the blueprint. We know that Sophie Bridger is a total baller, Daisy Hibbert-Jones is looking remarkably like a young Sarah Hunter, and that we’ll all reflect on this season and struggle to imagine a time in which there weren’t Aussies carving it up in the Premier 15s.

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Death, taxes, and Sean Lynn wearing shorts. The sky is blue, and Maisy Allen will be playing for England soon. Ellie Rugman might have a head start, but Lark Davies will be gunning for that Top Try-Scorer badge – and ‘Sparkle and Shine’ from Nativity is the best Christmas song that’s ever been written. Irrefutable. Certainties. Things you’d hang your (scrum) cap on.

What’s fascinating, though – with five rounds of this new season played – is that there is so much we still don’t know. The current Premier 15s table is an utterly alien creature to long-term followers of the league. Gloucester-Hartpury have run rampant – dropping just the one point. Teacher’s pets: skipping from the classroom and into the New Year, safe in the knowledge that their report card’s an impeccable column of A’s.

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Exeter Chiefs were late on the first day, and had forgotten their packed lunch, but have been star pupils ever since. They stumbled from the blocks in Round One, but have now started to purr – and last year’s silver medallists have put in four consecutive demolition jobs, with an average score line of 60 points to six. As things stand, it looks for all the world as though the trophy will have a new name on it, come June.

Continue looking down the table, and the stories just keep coming. Sharks are circling, deadlier than ever before, in the top half – with the gutsiest of Warriors for company. It’s a magnificent state of affairs: Rachel Taylor and Jo Yapp are two wonderful coaches, and deserve to wake up on Christmas Day knowing they’ve some notable scalps nestled amongst the cards above the fireplace.

Then, it gets decidedly odd. In 2021 – Harlequins won the Premier 15s (side note: it’s been 18 months and Shaunagh Brown’s speech still makes me bawl…). Joining them in the semi-finals? Saracens, Lightning, and Wasps. As things stand, these former powerhouses languish in seventh, eighth, and ninth place. It’s a deeply unfamiliar sight.

Saracens haven’t lost two games in a regular season since the league’s formation, and have conceded that many already in this one. They’d probably rather find themselves on Carnaby Street this week than sitting in the bottom half of the table – and I do not say that lightly.

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But, and here’s where the ‘not knowing’ comes in: how much does any of this actually mean? It’s nigh-on impossible to get the measure of a league when it kicked off without most of its stars, and when they’ve been returning in instalments. Squad depth is crucial, of course, and the teams flying right now deserve every plaudit. They’ve developed and recruited fresh talent, built throughout the Allianz Cup, translated that into their league campaigns, and have reaped the rewards of a bright start – but there will certainly be some upheaval in January, and it could make for a few thrilling sprint finishes.

We saw it last season with Loughborough – who were without their Scottish contingent (looking to qualify for the World Cup) and Emily Scarratt (looking to get her foot facing forwards again) for much of their early fixtures. They lost five of their first seven, and then either won or drew eight of their next nine. It was riotously fun to follow, as their purple juggernaut surged through the standings, and Rhys Edwards’ women were right in the mix as the final act of the season played out.

If he and Alex Austerberry meet up for a festive pint, the Lightning Director of Rugby will be able to confidently encourage his Saracens counterpart not to panic: form and positioning can change in a heartbeat – especially when you’ve cavalries of their calibre.

This year, Saracens have been without Zoe Harrison, Marlie Packer, Leanne Infante, Jess Breach, Poppy Cleall, Sarah McKenna, and Hannah Botterman. That’s a ridiculous set of names. Ridiculous. The only Red Rose they’ve had back from the World Cup is Holly Aitchison, who started at fly-half against Gloucester-Hartpury on an afternoon she’d probably like to forget.

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The habitual and fiendishly talented centre found herself behind a beleaguered pack, constantly under pressure from the best club side in the women’s game right now, and unable to really do anything. Some of the Wolfpack’s mainstays have fought ferociously – Alex Ellis, May Campbell, and Lotte Clapp – and Austerberry has unearthed gems in Sharifa Kasolo and Grace Moore, but the three-time champions have been nowhere near their snarling, relentless best – and it’ll be fascinating to see how long it takes them to rediscover that form in the New Year.

Harlequins, meanwhile, are head-scratchers. Arabella McKenzie? Lackadaisically lethal. Their discipline? Abysmal. Emily Scott? In a real purple patch. Their scrum? Seemingly a total roulette. Rachael Burford? A fine wine of an athlete performing weekly distribution concertos. Their accuracy? Jekyll and Hyde. Sarah Bonar and Jade Konkel-Roberts? Another pair who seem to have acquired some of Zackary’s Duracell bunny qualities. I’ve no idea what to make of them, and can’t wait to see what they produce in 2023.

So – what do we really know? Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter are a class apart right now, and it’s hard to imagine them not reaching the play-offs: not only because of the point hauls they’ve managed already, but because of the sheer excellence of their squads – and the way they’ve gone about their bruising business.

Sharks and Warriors have been at full strength for a while now, so it’s all about how they continue to secure those mid-table berths – and which other upsets they can spring. Sadly, the writing feels on the wall for Wasps and DMP, who will target their head-to-heads like World Cup finals, and have a truly tough season in store.

That leaves the four chasers, from whom there is plenty more to come: Bristol, Harlequins, Saracens, and – hopefully – Loughborough. January will provide plenty of answers, and ample entertainment.

Actually – there’s one other thing a lot of us know with complete certainty, and it’s that rugby exists North of Loughborough. The RFU is working hard to grow the women’s game, and to ensure that the Premier 15s remains the best domestic league within it, but it would be a baffling and truly miserable set of circumstances if their announcement this week proves the final say on the matter – and there is no room at the inn for a Northern club.

There are young girls in need of a local team to support, of role models from their region, and of readily accessible pathways – should they want to take their game to the next level. There are young girls (and boys – because this league is inspirational to everyone) in the North of England who could go on to play at World Cups, and everything possible should be done to support that.

To think that we might not have had Tamara Taylor or Katy Daley-McLean because they couldn’t see women like themselves playing top-flight rugby, or that Sarah Hunter, Zoe Aldcroft, or Abbie Ward might not have been able to hone their craft at Lichfield or DMP, is appalling. There has to be a Northern team in this competition: just look at Sale’s best ever start to a season – coached by young female coaches with a real eye for talent, and starring three youngsters who’ve just been named in the England U20s squad. It’s a total no-brainer.

There’s definitely the sense that the RFU are going to do something about this issue: the selection panel made ‘a strong recommendation’ that they explore how ‘greater geographical spread can be provided’, and – given that the league has ‘capacity for ten teams’ – you’d hope that a Northern side will receive their golden ticket by the time the appeal process concludes at the end of February. Like so much else this season, though: it remains to be seen.

Not knowing – jeopardy – is what makes sport equal parts brilliant and agonising. In the case of this tumultuous Premier 15s season, it’s going to make for a compelling few months. Perhaps this has been an unhelpful read – 1,400 words of me shrugging before a crystal ball still murky with the absence of some of the world’s best players, and with less than a third of the season completed. If so: apologies.

If you want guarantees, go back and re-read the first paragraph, because – whilst I can’t tell you much about how everything will look in five months’ time – I can promise you that Kabeya will continue to astonish, Lynn will still insist on baring his calves, and that you won’t be able to get that Nativity number out of you head until someone – quite possibly in cherry and white, or maybe in black kit – is lifting that trophy come June.

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