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New finalists on the block - why this season has been one of Premier 15s best

By Matt Merritt
Players of Exeter Chiefs Women huddle as they celebrate winning the Allianz Cup at Sandy Park on April 23, 2022 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Ryan Hiscott - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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The Premier 15s regular season is over, the play-offs are ahead of us and we know for sure that there will be a new team amongst the finalists this year as the usual suspects – Saracens Women and Harlequins Women – meet in the semi-finals this Sunday.


As we reach the end of another fascinating season, and with more eyes on women’s rugby than ever before, it seems only fitting that the traditional table toppers have been rearranged a little.

Saracens Women sit atop the table after yet another impressively dominant season taking 16 wins from a possible 18 and racking up bonus points in 13 games. RugbyPass were in attendance for their game against Wasps at the weekend and despite missing several key players and both their starting locks leaving the field due to injury, Saracens’ heads never bowed. Wasps went ahead early but the home team comeback was steady, controlled and inevitable, such has been their approach for much of the season. After losing the crown to Quins in 2021 they will be keen to snatch the trophy back.

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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

There’s a sizeable gap between first and second in the table but Exeter Chiefs Women will nonetheless be proud of their spot and of securing a home semi-final in only their second season in the league. Head Coach Susie Appleby has built an exciting squad, leaning heavily on USA and Canadian internationals such as Gabby Cantorna and DaLeaka Menin, but sprinkled with young English players like Merryn Doidge and Flo Robinson who have been in and around the Red Roses squad in camps. Perhaps more importantly Sandy Park is becoming as much of a fortress for the women’s team as it has been in recent years for their male counterparts, with some fiercely die-hard fans travelling across Devon and beyond for each game.

Chiefs will face off in their semi-final against the resurgent Bristol Bears Women who have just smashed their own attendance record with over 4,000 fans watching their last home game at Ashton Gate. They’ll be hoping many of them make the trip down the M5 to Sandy Park.

New Head Coach Dave Ward has galvanised his team, lifting them from last season’s eighth place finish to a comfortable third, and added a couple of key England internationals in lock Abbie Ward and scrum half Leanne Infante. Bristol have a policy of sharing resources with Ward and his coaches having plenty of access to the men’s set up and not being afraid to tap into that.


Bristol set the pace for much of the season and looking nailed on for a play-off position as early as December. If their form stuttered a little in 2022, they certainly righted it enough in the final few weeks and their west country semi-final at Sandy Park should be a hugely entertaining game.

For Harlequins Women, fourth place will seem like a missed opportunity but they’re a team you can’t dismiss easily. The reigning champions have plenty of reason to give it their all, not least with head coach Gerard Mullen moving onto a new role at the end of the season. With an all-England front row, the evergreen passing of Rachael Burford in the centres, and seasoned internationals in almost every position, they’ve got experience and skill enough to win it all again.

Whatever happens in the semi-finals this weekend we’ll have a new face in the finals and whether that’s Appleby’s star-studded Chiefs or Bristol Bears with their core of Red Roses and Wales internationals, the opportunity to break through the league’s glass ceiling might just be enough to propel them all the way!


Whether you’re attending either of the games in person or tuning in via BBC iPlayer or BT Sport, there are lots of tantalising match-ups across the semi-finals. It will be particularly interesting to see how much Bristol’s lightning quick outside backs Grace Crompton, Courtney Keight and Kayleigh Powell can impose themselves on the game given Exeter’s steadier, often forward-led playing style. Whereas Chiefs will be hoping Kate Zackary imposes herself on the game and Cantorna’s kicking opens up plenty of room for them.

Over in North London the battle of the packs will be fascinating. Harlequins can roll out Vickii Cornborough, Amy Cokayne and Shaunagh Brown in their front row with Rosie Galligan, Sarah Beckett and Fi Fletcher all options to pack down behind them. Saracens will counter with Hannah Botterman, May Campbell and perhaps Kelsey Clifford, backed by the likes of Sonia Green, Marlie Packer and Vicky Fleetwood- it’s a mouth-watering prospect.

But there are more than four teams in the league and while this quartet prepare for their next fixtures, the other six teams will take some time to review their own seasons and how best to improve on them.

Wasps Women have been perennial semi-finalists since the league’s inception, but this year a string of injuries coupled with the regular loss of players to sevens rugby has left them repeatedly short benched and for a good portion of the year playing forwards in their back line. Perhaps their biggest loss came before a ball had been kicked as talismanic captain Kate Alder announced she was pregnant and as such would not be available all season. A big loss on the field, she’s also seemed to be the glue for that team in recent years and they’ll be eager to get her back in the mix!

They call themselves the circus, and if you’ve watched Gloucester-Hartpury Women play you’ll understand why. They find themselves finishing in 6th again but if they’ve fallen short on wins they’ve not scrimped on entertainment value. The emergence of Emma Sing as a swashbuckling option at full back, the marked improvement of their set piece and forward pack and the exuberance of Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt will all be key to them making a push up the table next season.

You’d be forgiven if you wrote off Loughborough Lightning’s play-off hopes less than five minutes into their campaign when Emily Scarratt was taken from the field with what turned out to be a compound fracture and dislocation of her ankle. Lightning seemed rudderless for the next string of games without Scaz anchoring their midfield. To their credit though as soon as there was a break in the schedule they put work in as a team, rearranged their line-up and came out fighting. The damage had probably already been done but they proved to themselves that they weren’t a one-woman team in attack and gave other player a chance to shine in doing so.

Worcester Warriors Women seemed the team poised to make progress this season but Jo Yapp’s side find themselves once again in the lower end of the table. Despite having some veteran internationals like Lydia Thompson and Laura Keates in their squad they have a fairly young team and seem only a piece or two away from being a real threat in the future. With the likes of Meg Varley, who has racked up over 50 appearances at 22 years old and prop Akina Gondwe, they have some exciting talent who will only get better with time.

It’s a similar story for Sale Sharks Women. With Katy Daley-Mclean hanging up her boots to focus on coaching, they’ve used this season to give their young squad lots of opportunity, but if they want to really progress a few new additions will be necessary to build the experience in the locker room.

Is there a team more inspiring than DMP Durham Sharks? Despite ending the season without a single match point, they have given their all week in and week out, with the likes of Rachael Burford and Sarah Hunter talking up their attitude and how tough they are to face, despite what the score lines might say.

It’s been a roller-coaster season for all these teams and we can’t forget it’s only one more season until the next re-tender for places in the league. With the growth of the domestic game and teams like Bath and London Irish knocking on the door to get involved, it looks like the Premier 15s seasons to come will be even more exciting.

But for now, with the play-offs looming, all eyes will be on the west country and which team will make their first appearance in the final  to face off against well-seasoned finalists in the form of either Saracens or Harlequins.


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