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Prem 15s: 'Kingsholm is about to become the big red shop window for this magnificent product'

By Claire Thomas
Taken during the Allianz Premier Semi Final Playoff match between Gloucester-Hartpury and Bristol Bears, Kingsholm, Gloucester, England on 10th June 2023. Credit: RFU

Out of nowhere, it feels, the season’s grand finale is mere days away, and deserves as many eyes on it as possible – from out-and-out league disciples, to those dipping a curious toe into the waters of the best women’s domestic competition in the world. Saturday 24th June is, quite literally, the pinnacle of women’s club rugby – and so it’s time to both big the occasion up, and strip things right back.

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This week, we’re going to keep structures simple and stories accessible, because Kingsholm is about to become the big red shop window for this magnificent product, and it’s always that bit more engrossing watching a contest when you know its players.

Premier 15s newbies: welcome. It’s wonderful to have you with us, and I’ve a feeling you’re going to like it here.

So – without further ado – The 2023 Final: Gloucester-Hartpury versus Exeter Chiefs.

Muscle (the forwards)
At full strength, Gloucester-Hartpury name an all-international pack. Maud Muir, Kelsey Jones, and Laura ‘Bimba’ Delgado have hardly taken a backwards step all season – and can be replaced by another trio of Test front rowers at a moment’s notice.

Second rowers Zoe Aldcroft, Alex Matthews, and Sam Monaghan are classy as they come – devastatingly combining rugby smarts with work rate. The side’s ‘silent assassin’ back row Bethan Lewis is deft and industrious, and Sarah Beckett’s playing the best rugby of her career. Their line out has stuttered, though, and is an area Chiefs will target. How much have those bolts been tightened since the semi-finals?

Exeter will happily meet fire with fire here: their forwards are formidable, and fronted up sumptuously against Saracens – which very few do. They’ve gone toe-to-toe with the best scrums in the league, and Emily Tuttosi is perhaps the best Canadian darts thrower since John Part won his second World Championship in 2008.

Locks Poppy Leitch and Nichola Fryday bring astuteness and athleticism to the line out, which Steve Salvin has brilliantly drilled. Abbie Fleming and Maisy Allen are enormous talents in the back row, where Rachel Johnson will take new viewers by surprise. She’s a smile on legs with immaculate blonde plaits until kick-off, at which point she methodically, ball-in-hand, flattens every member of the opposition she’s not yet tackled into origami. It’s glorious.

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Hustle (the playmakers)
Gloucester-Hartpury’s Mo Hunt has already been named the RPA’s Premier 15s Player of the Season, and hands out try assists like Oprah does cars. If you make a mistake, she will punish you. She snipes, dummies, runs support lines, and kicks – and her synergy with half-back partner Lleucu George regularly proves irresistible. George’s box of tricks is TARDIS-sized, and – if these circus ringmasters have front foot ball – they really know how to put on a show.

Cheif’s Flo Robinson is zippy, accurate, and – to reiterate – zippy. Her service is up there with the best in the business, but she’s also another one who’s caught more defences napping than you’ve had hot dinners. Number ten Liv McGoverne, meanwhile, has been at the heart of Exeter’s staggering stats this season. She’s pinpoint from the tee, physical in defence and attack, and has a starry array of tricks up her sleeve – which she executes with a cucumber-cool ease. ‘Languid Liv’, as it were.

Heads (the coaches)
Before Sean Lynn was named Head of Women’s Rugby at Hartpury, it was Susie Appleby who ran the cherry and whites programme, and that previous adds some extra fun to proceedings. The Welshman steered Hartpury University to three straight BUCS Super Rugby titles between 2017 and 2019: he knows what it takes to win knock-out matches. He might give considered, twinkly-eyed interviews pre-match, and cares deeply about both culture and nurturing talent – but also has a steely core, and drives high standards.

Appleby, meanwhile, is a former England scrum-half – whose career post-playing included finishing runner-up on the BBC’s ‘SAS: Are You Tough Enough?’. The answer to that is ‘yes’. The no-nonsense firecracker’s built this Chiefs outfit from scratch – meshing superstars from across the globe with local wunderkids.

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She always keeps you on your toes – answers vary from one word to short but compelling TED Talks – but she’s never short on passion or honesty, and will live every second of the final with her team. Her facial expressions throughout their knife-edge semi against Saracens were a sight to behold. Tremendous at coaching. Dire at poker.

Hearts (the captains)
Hunt is a World Cup winner and Olympian, playing some of the best rugby A) of her career B) in all of scrum-halfing. She’s poured her whole heart into skippering this historic season, because that’s just what she’s like as a human, but also as a way of handling that devastating World Cup omission.

Her co-captain, Zoe Aldcroft, was named 2021’s World Player of the Year, and rounded into that sort of scintillating form once more during the Six Nations. She’s a line out guru, and doesn’t seem to have a ‘bad day’ setting. Crucially, her range goes all the way up to ‘utterly world class’, which is a level she always seems to reach on the biggest of occasions.

Chiefs’ captain is 25-year-old Exeter University Head Coach Poppy Leitch: a relentless operator who is wise beyond her years. She’s a natural leader: drilling the line out at training before calling it on match day, often doing the grunt work for 80, leading the celebrations for all of those essential, momentum-wrestling micro-victories, and speaking with formidable articulacy.

Ahead of the semi-final, she masterminded and MC-ed a spirited game of blindfolded ‘Guess The Chocolate’ at training, and it speaks volumes that – even in a squad containing the current USA and Ireland skippers – the armband is hers.

Velocity (the back lines)
Blink and you’ll miss this lot. Future Red Rose flyers Mia Venner, Merryn Doidge, and Katie Buchanan; Celtic dynamos Lisa Neumann and Eilidh Sinclair; the canny juggernaut that is Tatyana Heard; the wonder woman that is Kate Zackary; and the class of the likes of Ellie Rugman, Rachel Lund, Gabby Cantorna, and Emma Sing. These women are fast, powerful, skillful, and hungry for ball: there’ll be fireworks if they can handle the pressure and make those killer passes stick.

Always-Going-Virals (the blockbuster human highlights reels)
‘Alway leave them wanting more’, so – let’s end with stressing just how electric some of these athletes are.

Hope Rogers is so good at rugby it’s like she was made in a lab, whilst Zackary is so talented she’s almost completed positional bingo without missing a beat. The league probably opted to have the final held at Kingsholm because Beckett’s in such red hot form that it’d be a fire hazard to have her play on actual grass.

Neve Jones might be pint-sized, but she’s one of those lethal 10% pints (the kind people are hubristically chucking down at Glastonbury right now): physics-defying in her potency. Allen is so consistently outstanding that it’d be boring if it weren’t such a joy to watch, and Sophie Bridger has this rare ability to execute Barbarians-style rugby with pinpoint precision when it matters most.

Claudia MacDonald might be back for the final, for heavens’ sake. Claudia MacDonald: who makes Anton Du Beke look flat-footed and should come with a whiplash warning for spectators. Kingsholm is about to be sprinkled with genuinely world class talents.

And there you have it. The muscle and the hustle. The heads and the hearts. The velocity and the always-going-virals. A sort-of guide to Gloucester-Hartpury versus Exeter Chiefs. If you’ve made it this far, and take one thing from the read: watch it.

History and entertainment guaranteed. Saturday. Half three. You know you want to.

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