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Jeopardy saturated: What's at stake in the final two rounds of the Premier 15s

By Claire Thomas
LOUCESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Gloucester-Hartpury's celebrate scoring during the Allianz Premier 15s Round 16 match between Gloucester-Hartpury Women and Harlequins Women at Kingsholm Stadium on May 21, 2023 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

16 rounds of the Premier 15s played. Two remain. It’s almost closing time. Gloucester-Hartpury, Exeter Chiefs, Saracens, and – in all likelihood – Bristol Bears have nabbed themselves invites to the after-party: a helter-skelter double header of do-or-die, foot-to-the-floor rugby.

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Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, there’s still a bit of time left at the main event. The DJ’s saved a few certified bangers until last – to help the revellers forget their sore feet and push tomorrow morning’s alarm to the back of their minds. It’s tempting to chat purely about the playoffs right now, but there are storylines throughout the Premier 15s table which demand our attention over this next fortnight. Let’s work our way up the table.

10. Wasps- Two remaining matches: EXE (A). BRI (H)
It’s been a truism that you don’t want to be the side facing Exeter after they’ve suffered a defeat: they tend to respond by furiously swatting aside their next opponents. So, given that they’ve just lost two in a row, and are staring down the barrel of a Saracens-shaped semi-final assignment, you really, really don’t want to be in their crosshairs – let alone down at fortress Sandy Park.

This is a gnarly penultimate fixture for Wasps, who’ll set themselves a few performance objectives, and aim to give a good account of themselves in the lair of a wounded and formidable beast. June 3rd will be bittersweet: the last time we see the women in black and gold in the Premier 15s for a while.

Over the years, they’ve been brilliant competitors – even title contenders – and played some truly sparkling rugby, which has made this season an even tougher watch. Hopefully, round 18 is a time for celebration, and acknowledging what they *have* achieved this campaign.

The resilience of head coach LJ Lewis, her staff, and her squad, who’ve ran out each week – unpaid underdogs – has been immense, and the likes of Hannah Edwards and Liz Crake deserve a loving send-off. Former players will be in attendance for what should be a special day at Twyford Avenue – despite the daunting prospect of Bristol Bears rolling into town. The full-time score won’t matter, but that this team have battled through to the final day of the regular season absolutely will.

9. DMP. Two remaining matches: HAR (A). SAL (H)
As with Wasps, these remaining two rounds are overshadowed by Sharks’ imminent departure, whilst also
providing a shop window for those eager to showcase just why they deserve snapping up by other teams. A
trip to Harlequins is a tall order, but the women in quarters were seriously disjointed at Kingsholm this
weekend, so DMP should head to The Stoop aiming to improve at least one side of the 5 – 49 scoreline we
saw when the two last met.

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It’s then a shark derby to finish things off, but Sale were as impressive in round 16 as Quins were lacklustre, and DMP will be well aware that they’re the catfish to Rachel Taylor’s great whites in this one. At least, in the continued Premier 15s presence of their finned friends next season, there’s proof that #NorthernRugbyMatters – and hopefully increasingly so.

8. Loughborough Lightning. Two remaining matches: WOR (H). SAR (H)
Sixth is very much the target, Head Coach Rhys Edwards has said – and Loughborough are inarguably A) improving and B) better than eighth. They’re just a point behind Sale, and six adrift of Worcester, but this isn’t an easy run-in –even with both fixtures being played at home. Warriors have turned into quite the bogey team for Lightning– winning their last four meetings – and will approach this as the mid-table shoot-out it could prove to be.

On the final day, there’s the small matter of Saracens: a proper litmus test for those in African Violet. There could be a home semi-final on the line for the three-time champions, so you suspect they’ll be brandishing the kitchen sink.

If Lightning play how they did in the opening 40 against Gloucester-Hartpury in round 15 – they’ll end their season taking a battering. If they play how they did in the second 40, and have their full constellation of stars available to them, this could be a lot of fun. There’s also the (Helena) Rowland Factor. Remember what she did to Harlequins on the final day last year…

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7. Sale Sharks. Two remaining matches: GLO (H). DMP (A)
Some poor sacrificial lamb had to get the job of facing a Gloucester-Hartpury outfit who just put 60 on
Quins. Unfortunately for Sale – it’s them. They might well force the Cherry and Whites into a higher gear
than they required against a misfiring Harlequins on Sunday, but this result’s only going one way.

After the match (being played at Richmond’s Athletic Ground), they’ll head down the road to Twickenham to watch their men’s side contest a first Premiership final in 17 years – and it’s this whole club momentum which is so special.

Sale deserve to end this campaign on a high – having defeated DMP, Worcester, Loughborough, and Wasps – and made Bears and Quins really scrap for results. 2023’s iteration of Sharks has been the most dangerous yet, and they’re only growing more deadly. The men are flying, the women are climbing, and Georgie Lilly Perris-Redding is – at all times- out there somewhere, jackalling…

6. Worcester Warriors. Two remaining matches: LOU (A). HAR (H)
By all accounts, Jo Yapp’s women made Saracens dig deep for their victory at the weekend, and – if they can replicate that ferocity, and prove as gritty as they have done all season – they could well win their remaining matches. They’re 12 points behind Quins, so won’t be able to pip them for fifth, but there’s a lot to fight for in terms of bragging rights.

Imagine if they did the double over both Lightning and the 2021 champions…Warriors are a distinctly loveable side, whose narrative this year has been Hollywood-worthy. As fairytale endings go – this would be blockbuster.

5. Harlequins. Two remaining matches: DMP (H). WOR (A)
Quins’ semi-final hopes have essentially evaporated. They’re nine off Bristol, who should take the full five against Wasps in Round 18, so the Londoners will be absent from the play-offs for the very first time. It’s now all about next season, and taking pride and momentum into that.

We heard Sarah Bonar at half-time of the Premier 15s live stream on Sunday discussing how the side are in a rebuild phase, which sounds about right: Amy Turner hardly had her feet beneath the desk at The Stoop before the season was underway, and has been recruiting and moulding on the fly ever since.

Speaking to Emily Chancellor earlier in the season, and to Turner herself last week, it’s clear that impressive cultural foundations are being laid within a squad oozing talent, upon which a new-look Harlequins can be constructed.

4. Bristol. Two remaining matches: SAR (A). WAS (A)
You don’t think of bears as stealthy predators, but these ones – this season – have been exactly that. Where did they come from..? Ward’s side let Gloucester-Hartpury fly out of the traps, sat back and opened a cold one as Exeter stormed to the top of the table, lit a cigar as Saracens rediscovered their snarl, and then said ‘fourth? Oh – yeah. That’s us. See you in the semi-finals. We’ll bring the offloads.’

This born-again Bristol managed, by some margin, the result of the weekend with their victory over Exeter, and seem to have developed a muscular Plan B to accompany their preferred razzle dazzle.

A trip to the StoneX is about as daunting as one to Mordor, but Ward was compelling at the weekend when he argued: ‘if we want to win this league, we’ve got to beat those teams. It’s a dress rehearsal for us. Why not go up there and get a result?’ If they do, then things get properly juicy: every team in the playoffs would have beaten at least two of the other semi-finalists this season.

3. Saracens. Two remaining matches: BRI (H). LOU (A)
Saracens looked miles off the pace a few months ago, then were suddenly back in the top four. Next thing
we knew, they were third, and Marlie Packer was explaining after the Six Nations that they were gunning for a home semi-final. She seemed quietly assured on this front, and we should know by now that Packer tends to knock off rugby to-do list items as vigorously as she does would-be tacklers.

Despite having to host a flying-high Bristol this weekend, before visiting a classy Lightning with nothing to lose, the reigning champions are peaking at exactly the right time, and breathing down Chiefs’ necks. They know the value of a semi-final in their own back yard, so – despite the calibre of opposition – sheer willpower and physicality could see them surge into second before time’s up.

2. Exeter Chiefs. Two remaining matches: WAS (H). GLO (A)
Have teams figured Chiefs out? Have Exeter lost the ruthlessness and swagger which saw them romp to 13
straight bonus point wins? Did their Allianz Cup heroics take a bit too much out of them? Are they holding something back for the playoffs? Are we making a mountain out of a molehill? Answers on a postcard.

The wheels certainly haven’t come off the big green bus – last year’s finalists remain contenders – but the last fortnight has probably consigned them to a semi-final against Saracens, and they might well have to go and do a job in Gloucester on the final day if they’re to keep home advantage for the occasion.

Sport is fickle, and the complexion of their season has changed suddenly. They’ll dispatch Wasps, no problem. What’s next is a different story.

1. Gloucester-Hartpury. Two remaining matches: SAL (A). EXE (H)
Sean Lynn told me a few weeks ago that he wants teams to ask: ‘how do we stop this Gloucester-Hartpury side?’.

Well, Sean – I think you’ve got what you wished for. Saracens cracked the code, just the once, but no one else has, and the table toppers were imperious on Sunday. Physical, pacy, accurate, opportunistic, disciplined, relentless, skilful, and highly entertaining. Their depth is scary, and they’re having an awful lot of fun putting the fear of the rugby gods into everybody else.

They’ll beat Sale, and will finish this season top of the tree. A massive achievement, but one they won’t be satisfied with. They’ll want to see off Exeter in that clash of the titans – whilst learning as much as they can about Susie Appleby’s side, and managing bodies wherever possible – and then roll up those cherry and white sleeves for the main event. The circus are making history each and every time they perform, but they’re nowhere near finished yet.

Ten jeopardy-saturated matches remaining in the regular season before the three which matter most. Storylines wherever you look. Buckle up: this next month should be good!

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