In the biggest shock of Premier 15s history, newly-formed Exeter Chiefs beat title holders Saracens 22-14 on Saturday.
Saracens have long dominated the Premier 15s, winning the 2017-18 season and the 2018-19 season. The London team were on track to retain their title in the 2019-2020 season, before it was declared null and void due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Susie Appleby’s Exeter Chiefs side, on the other hand, played their first ever game of Premier 15s rugby against Gloucester-Hartpury on 10 October 2020, losing 34-14. Despite their newcomer status and underwhelming welcome, the team managed to secure a decisive win to end Saracens’ 33 match winning streak. This result hasn’t come from nowhere, it is the result of building an Exeter side with investment from the board into the women’s squad. Above all, yesterday’s game between two semi-professional women’s rugby sides highlighted exactly what happens when you invest in women’s rugby, and why it absolutely deserves to be broadcast on television. It was a thrilling, skilful, and exciting 70 minutes of rugby.
— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) January 30, 2021
In September 2019, Exeter Chiefs revealed their bid to join the Premier 15s, the highest level of elite women’s rugby in England. Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks were two new sides to join the league, and the Devon team’s chief executive, Tony Rowe, pledged to invest £500,000 in setting up the women’s side, with a further expected £1m to £1.5m over the first three seasons.
Red Roses fans will remember that in Autumn 2019, England played at Exeter Chiefs home ground Sandy Park against France, which at the time was a record-breaking audience for a Women’s Six Nations game in England, with an audience of 10,545 rugby fans. It was part of an England Rugby initiative to take women’s rugby to areas with high numbers of rugby fans, who might not travel to Twickenham to watch the Red Roses play. Months before, in February 2019, the Red Roses had their record attendance for a home Women’s Six Nations game with a crowd of 4,674 in Doncaster. It’s an idea the RFU borrowed from France, who had a world-record crowd of over 17,000 when France beat England in Grenoble. Moving the games around made women’s rugby more accessible for rugby fans in France, and England were smart to make a similar move in Doncaster and Exeter.
Last year, Rowe told The Telegraph: “When we looked at the demographics of the people who were buying those tickets, they were mostly, 95 per cent, sold in Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset, so we know there’s a big appetite down here for women’s rugby.”
Rowe continued: “Exeter Chiefs Women will play their games at Sandy Park and our intention is for them to be a main act. We will play the women on a different day to the men. We think there’s enough support for them down here to attract their own supporters and start their own fanbase.”
The potential of such a fanbase is yet to be seen, due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Rowe confirmed that the investment into the women’s side would not be affected by coronavirus.
The new side will attract rugby fans, as some huge international stars having made the move to Devon to play for the new club. England forward Poppy Leitch is joined by stars including USA captain Jennine Duncan and her teammates Gabby Cantorna and Kate Zackary, Netherlands captain Linde Van Der Velden, Japan prop Sachiko Kato, and a number of Canadian players.
Big smiles on the faces of the @USARugby women who are across the pond playing for @ExeterChiefs after their big win against @SaracensWomen on the weekend. And shout-out to Eagle's captain @katezack28 for her player of the match nod pic.twitter.com/V456BqyXbC
— Women Eagles (@USAWomenEagles) January 31, 2021
These players have been enticed to Devon with the professional set-up and investment promised by the Exeter board. The women’s squad shares the same training facilities as the men, they play at Sandy Park, and can access some of the same equipment as the men, including GPS trackers to assist performance. According to The Telegraph, the team even has its own chef, an almost unheard of luxury in the women’s game.
The players will receive a £100 match fee per game, meaning the side is a semi-professional set-up. £100 per game seems like an insufficient amount, but it is a start for the professional women’s game in the UK. For the players, I think the appeal of Exeter will be the long-term investment evidenced from the club, and the ability to access world-class training facilities not always afforded to the women’s sides. It’s also worth noting that the overseas players are assisted with accommodation and often help with securing jobs. For example, the club helped Captain Linde Van Der Velden to get a part-time job as an architect, alongside her rugby commitments, according to The Telegraph.
The ringfencing – in promise – of Exeter Chief Women’s funds is paramount to ensure the success of the side. For all rugby teams, the last year has seen a drop in income, and it is feared this will have a drastic impact on the growth of the women’s game. In October, Rowe admitted that Exeter Chiefs has lost £1million a month without fans at Sandy Park, but has confirmed they will still fund the women’s side. In October, the RFU announced that they would cut women’s rugby funding by 25 per cent, which meant each team in the Premier 15s received £56,250 this season, a reduction from £75,000.
Forgive me for my excitement here, but Exeter’s triumph against Saracens is a welcome relief to women’s rugby fans who want a more exciting and competitive domestic competition. It’s a sign of what’s to come, as more teams in the Premier 15s are sufficiently funded. Despite the financial uncertainty of coronavirus for clubs, there is good news. The Premier 15s does have a new sponsor, Allianz, who I believe should significantly fund the women’s domestic game.
Investment in women’s rugby is no longer a profitless gesture, but is proving a smart move in rugby hotspot Devon. Exeter Chiefs Women will undoubtedly build on their success and will welcome their fans into Sandy Park in large numbers as soon as possible. Exeter Chiefs Women will also grow their academy to allow local players to climb through the ranks, but Appleby has made it clear that first Exeter needs to be a truly competitive side.
— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) January 30, 2021
This weekend’s clash was only available to stream online, via the Premier 15s website or on social media. It’s such a shame, as I would have loved to watch it on television. There were also issues for those who tuned in, as the commentary and sound was not working for the first part of the stream. Maybe there really isn’t the appetite for domestic women’s rugby on television yet, but with games as exciting as this, and rivalries as big as Saracens v Exeter now exclusively playing out in the women’s game, it’s genuinely riveting rugby.
Each week, Premier 15s shares the best tries of the week on social media, where fans can watch the likes of Bristol Bears’ Jaz Joyce score unbelievable tries. It’s worth watching, if you are still unsure of the quality of women’s rugby.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now