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'My gut feeling is that Saracens might have the edge': Premier 15s Final Preview

By Kat Merchant
Harlequins Women beat Saracens Women in the 2021 Allianz Premier 15s Final

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After an exciting Allianz Premier 15s season we have a history making final on our hands!

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The 2021/22 season has been the most open competition wise since the league’s inception and the debate about who could make the top four and ultimately have a shot at the final was blown wide open. Loughborough and Wasps, usual top four contenders were edged out my Bristol and Exeter- both of which have had a great season.

So let’s have a look at the teams who made this season’s top four.

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Abbie Ward on beating New Zealand, moving to Bristol and quick-fire questions | Tunnel talk
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Abbie Ward on beating New Zealand, moving to Bristol and quick-fire questions | Tunnel talk

The Top 4

Harlequins, last year’s champions suffered some tough transfers at the end of last season, losing key players such as Abbie Ward and Leanne Infante, plus the loss of highly regarded coach Karen Findlay.

They had a very mixed season- putting some great performances together with Emily Scott pulling the strings from ten but they also had some shock defeats. Their inconsistency ultimately led to them coming fourth and facing the formidable Saracens in the semi-finals where they were out powered and beaten a convincing 30-10.

Last year Bristol came eighth so a jump to third this year is arguably an impressive enough achievement for new coach Dave Ward. Bristol have been dogged this season, with the majority of the Welsh contingency having stand out performances.

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Alisha Butchers and Kayleigh Powell would be two of my top picks for the side. They faced Exeter in the semi-final and a slow start for them meant falling behind 21-0 before rallying together and scoring some fantastic tries to take the lead 24-21 with ten minutes to go, alas a last minute try for Exeter meant their finals dream came to an end.

Exeter are this season’s most talked about side. Having a lot of international players not involved in the Women’s Six Nations meant they were undisturbed for their impressive Allianz Cup run and dominated Saracens in the cup final, winning their first ever piece of silverware.

Coach Susie Appleby has high expectations for her team and isn’t shy in her post-match interviews to express her thoughts or disappointments around their performances- this is a team clearly striving for perfection.

Boosted with international players from Spain, the USA and Canada, Exeter play a very physical game with an average tackle success rate of 92% and their relentless defence in the semi-final ultimately leading to their win.

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The favourites going into Friday’s match has to be the impressive Saracens heading into their fourth consecutive final. Their pack is a huge part of their continued success. Players like England stars Marlie Packer and Poppy Cleall consistently make line breaks and hard carries so the backs have space out wide. An injury to play-maker Zoe Harrison is a blow for them as she’s been excellent for club and country at fly-half this year, but Holly Aitchison has really stepped up to the role! Take a look at this recent 50-22 kick from her in the semis.

Now onto the final itself!

The final

Everyone is always excited for the final but this year there seems to be an extra buzz around the event. We are so used to the London Derby show down of Quins against Saracens, but it’s fantastic for broadcasters, fans and for the league that a new team outside the M25 is in the mix!

What can we expect?

Big hits! Both teams have a very aggressive defence and pride themselves on putting in big hits. Watch out for Kate Zachary for Exeter and Hannah Botterman for Saracens, never far from making a rib crunching tackle.

A forward battle: I’ve no doubt we will see some scores out wide but the pack will be the decider of this one.

The back rows in both sides boast some huge names and players capable of standout performances. Two openside flankers, Vicky Fleetwood for Saracens has pace to burn and Chiefs’ Rachel Johnson with her turnovers is on impressive form. Who can make metres over gain line will also be important with Chiefs leading on this front, with an average of 135 carries per game this season, miles above any other team.

Flair- USA Eagle Alev Kelter has been an excellent edition to the squad- an all-round threat with her ball carries and distribution. We can expect the Kelter v Aitchison match up to create some flair in the backline. Equally for Exeter, Patricia Garcia has produced some game changing performances and game-winning moments this season and can alter the tempo of a game in a second as well as having a reliable kicking boot.

Tries! These are two teams who know their way to the try line with Exeter and Saracens both at the top of the points scoring charts for the season with 650 and 645 respectively. Whether it be through driven line out mauls or through pace on the wings, however they come about on Friday, rest assured we will be seeing lots of them in the final.

Who will win?

Exeter are the in form team with the least disruptions as a squad, whereas Saracens are seasoned pros at making and winning finals- it’s a hard one to decide.

In order for Exeter to win, they can’t have any dips in focus and must stay relentless for the full 80 minutes.

If the Chiefs bring the defensive effort from the semi-final and manage to get an early score then they can win.

However, my gut feeling is that Saracens might just have the edge on them. If the pack is allowed to get into the game early then they will get the fast ball needed to move the ball into space. Also the self-confidence of this Saracens team in their ability to win even when behind, is a huge factor.

If I had to call it, I’m going with a Saracens win BUT whatever happens it’s going to be an amazing game!

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