In a weekend of controversy in the men’s game, it skipped general attention that the women’s game celebrated a few firsts. Louisa Burgess became the first woman to ever score a hat-trick for Exeter Chiefs. The winger did so on her first start for the club, within the first half of their game against DMP Durham Sharks. This Saturday was also the first time ever that you could watch all Premier 15s games online, via YouTube and social media.

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It’s great to be able to watch women’s rugby, especially in the build-up to two Six Nations fixtures later in the day. The only problem was the overlap of Premier 15s games, which made it difficult to follow all games. At one point, I was watching Loughborough Lightning v Worcester Warriors via YouTube on my television, Gloucester-Hartpury v Bristol Bears on my iPad, and Sale Sharks v Harlequins on my phone. It obviously makes watching women’s rugby hard, and many don’t have the means (or the inclination) to do that.

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The same has happened in recent Women’s Six Nations competitions, with games overlapping by half an hour or so. It makes women’s rugby more difficult to follow, when we should be making it as easy as possible to engage new fans.

This weekend’s Premier 15s action was tainted slightly by rumours that the RFU could limit the number of overseas players that can play in each Premier 15s side. A spokesperson from England Rugby said that “regulations and details on overseas players for the 2021/22 season are still being worked through”, but it is a proposal that has annoyed many in the women’s rugby community – not least Exeter Chiefs.
For background, the Allianz Premier 15s is the most competitive women’s rugby league in Europe, and hosts players from all over the world. The tournament, which began in this format in 2017, is operated by England Rugby and is played between English teams. This year, the newly formed Exeter Chiefs Women joined the tournament under head coach Susie Appleby, who started a global search for the best talent in women’s rugby, enticing players to make the move to Devon with world-class facilities and access to support, help with finding work, and a small match day fee. The Exeter players get around £100 a match, but it is the investment, the professional mindset, the support available, and forward-thinking of the club that brings so many overseas players to Exeter.

Appleby brought together an international squad of world-class women’s rugby players who have shaken up the Premier 15s. In January, the team beat title-holders Saracens, ending the top side’s 33-match winning streak. Since then, the Chiefs have had a successful season, beating DMP Durham Sharks 76-5 this Saturday.

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A key component of the Devon side’s success was Gabby Cantorna, who scored one try and eight conversions on Saturday, adding 21 points to the scoreboard for Exeter. Cantorna plays for USA Women and had an impressive career in America before moving to Devon to play in the Premier 15s. The clever, dynamic fly half adds character to the Chiefs’ attack and is a leader in improving the kicking game in the league. Her pairing with Burgess led to a number of tries on top of her own.

Cantorna is one of a number of USA players at Exeter, alongside Jennine Duncan, Rachel Johnson, Joanna Kitlinski and Kate Zackary. There’s also Netherlands captain Linde Van Der Velden and Japan prop Sachiko Kato who both add experience to the team. Exeter isn’t alone in this either, as there are a number of overseas players who currently play for Premier 15s teams, including Canadian Stef Evans who plays for Bristol Bears.

It’s not currently clear whether this legislation – which is still an unconfirmed proposal – will apply to Welsh, Scottish and Irish players playing their club rugby in England, although reports so far have suggested this will apply to “overseas” players. I hope we will get some clarity about who this could apply to soon, particularly as the Premier 15s is growing in popularity.

I can understand the RFU’s side on this: they have created a league with the aim of strengthening women’s rugby in England, to foster a stronger pathway for girls and women into the England framework. I understand that, and I think the number of overseas players looking to play in the Premier 15s is proof that the RFU has achieved a really strong league.

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That being said, I think this is a really bad idea. I think the RFU needs to take a more holistic approach to develop the sport more generally. Having overseas players makes the Premier 15s more competitive, which strengthens both England players and their neighbours. The Women’s Six Nations has long been uncompetitive, but with Scotland, Ireland and Wales players now regularly playing in England, this year’s competition is set to be a lot better. A better international standard of women’s rugby will complement the women’s game in the long run.

It’s not the RFU’s responsibility to grow women’s rugby and to be fair, they are doing a lot more than other nations. The RFU focus is England, obviously, so they have to make decisions that benefit England. It’s worth a quick mention here that no other Home Nation has anything close to the Premier 15s so it’s absolutely no wonder why so many of their players now play for Premier 15s sides – Gloucester-Hartpury v Bristol Bears this weekend could have been mistaken for a Wales Women training match. It’s not the RFU’s job to fund a league that supports so many non-English players. The other nations should be investing much more into their own domestic tournaments, but they aren’t.

I still think the RFU will benefit so much by a truly international domestic league being played in England. During the Exeter Chiefs game on Saturday, I read comments from people all around the world, with quite a few watching from the USA. If the tournament is growing in popularity internationally, then the RFU will financially benefit from this.

From a grassroots perspective in England, which will, of course, be on the minds of the RFU, I think it’s important that we raise the level of rugby in the Premier 15s so that girls and boys watch women’s rugby because it’s that good, and the overseas players are an integral part of this.

If there was enough hype around the women’s game from all who watch rugby so many more girls would join the game. But the Premier 15s won’t get there without it continuing to be a fantastic display of rugby every week, and with it being easy to find online or on television.

If we stop overseas women’s rugby players joining the league, I think we will regret it in the long run. The Premier 15s needs to be the best product it can be, and that means allowing the best possible players to play in the competition. Appleby and Exeter Chiefs have nailed this: and to cap the number of international players in any squad would damage the development and competition of English clubs.

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