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New Year’s resolutions for Premiership Women’s Rugby

By Claire Thomas
SALE, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 16: Eti Haungatau of Sale Sharks breaks through the defence during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby match between Sale Sharks and Loughborough Lightning at Heywood Road on December 16, 2023 in Sale, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

Last week’s column, a festive look around the storylines and characters of Premiership Women’s Rugby, ended with the immortal words of Nineties gaming sensation, Bop It.

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‘Do it the same, but better’.

What we’re going for this week is a suggested amendment to that. It’s not quite as catchy, so you can see why Hasbro didn’t use it as their award-winning console’s pay-off, but it’s definitely worth pondering.

In 2024, the PWR needs to ‘do lots the same, but fight to make things even better – whilst also changing other bits.’ It’s clunky, but it’s accurate: in essence, the job’s not done yet – not at all.

In the light of a new year, as the mince pies dwindle and the pine needles start to tumble, here are a few ways you’d hope the competition pushes on in 2024…

More match action clips on socials! These – on every platform – have dropped off a cliff this season. Come on, IMG: let’s actually show people the product we’re growing – especially now there’s just one fixture shown per round, and it’s on a subscription-based channel.

On that note: the announcement of the new broadcast deal mentioned that discussions were ongoing about a supplementary free-to-air offering. That’s got to happen. The TNT coverage is truly something to be celebrated – it’s a huge improvement on the live-streams of recent years – but the real acceleration of this league will come when that’s combined with readily-available, cost-free coverage.

This is way above this column’s pay grade, but the EQP numbers don’t quite stack up right now, and that feels in need of addressing. EQP = England Qualified Player, and – at present – there must be at least 13 members of every match day squad who fit this description.

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For some clubs – particularly the more recently-formed ones – that’s a massive ask, and leaves teams forced to sideline their global stars, regardless of form or their contribution to the wider game in England.

The PWR is an English league, and it’s only right that young EQP talents are given opportunities to eventually become Red Roses – who are, in turn, at the heart of this world-beating product – but you don’t have to speak to many coaches before you hear of household names struggling for game time, and selectors tying themselves in knots to comply with this system.

Let’s improve attendances two-fold: both breaking records and raising averages. Saracens marketed the tinsel out of their Christmas Cracker up against Bristol – with bespoke content, cross-account promotion with the men’s team and their opponents, and a whole heap of work to spread the campaign far and wide. The result? Their second largest crowd ever.

Similarly, a near sell-out Twickenham was right royally entertained last week, as Harlequins smashed Big Game 15 out of the park – and encouraged 16,237 to enjoy at least part of the women’s fixture. ‘Most of them weren’t there for kick-off,’ I hear someone moan from the back. You’re right – plenty of them weren’t – but isn’t it terrific that a world record crowd experienced the PWR in some capacity..?

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And doesn’t it seem likely that they played their part in inspiring Amy Turner’s side to their grittiest performance of the season so far..? Treat yourself: take it as the win it was.

Those two are laudable peaks, but what needs to come next is not only outdoing them, but making sure that the games which aren’t colossal derbies or festive spectaculars are attracting better figures.

Across the board, we want to see numbers creeping up – round on round, season on season. My friend’s had an Arsenal Women season ticket for years, and remembers when – not all that long ago – crowds would max out at 3,000. This Christmas? They hit 59,042 for Chelsea’s trip to the Emirates. Rugby isn’t football, but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect progress – and dream big within that. 9,668 at Queensholm last year? Let’s fly past ten thousand in 2024.

If a suitable candidate can be found, the 2024/25 season should be contested by ten teams. No bye rounds: five competitive matches a weekend.

Speaking of competitiveness, it’d be fantastic to see two unprecedented things before the end of this campaign: a win for Leicester Tigers, and an away team finally triumphing in the semi-finals. Both would crank up the jeopardy, which is – of course – the holy grail of any league.

The standard of rugby is ever-improving in the PWR, and the gap between the table’s top and tail is narrowing. This season, whilst there feels a relatively preordained and unshakable top four, with five others battling it out beneath them – those two melees are compelling, and you’d not bet the Bounties rattling around that almost-finished tub of Celebrations on how the standings will look, come June.

Tigers and Trailfinders have looked to the manor born – much more competitive than either Wasps or DMP were able to prove last season – and they’re only going to get better.

I used to get excited when I’d write players’ honours alongside their names on team sheets and see six internationals in a pack. Now, I don’t bat an eyelid when 20 of the match day squad are capped – and the head-to-heads we enthuse about pre-game are the sort of titanic clashes you used to only see at World Cups.

Just look at how effortlessly athletes transition from club to country, and you’ve perfect proof of what rude health the level of competition is within the PWR. Maisy Allen, Delaney Burns, and Ella Wyrwas didn’t skip a beat last year on debut – because they’re playing Test match intensity stuff on a Saturday. In fact – they’re playing it on a Tuesday, too – because some of those squads are stacked enough that they’re training in a sea of world class players.

And, finally, anyone who considers themselves a supporter of the women’s game: make yourself heard and felt in 2024. Engage! Get involved however you can.

Read, watch, listen, learn, comment, attend, shout, sing, purchase, play, capture, and share the gospel. You have a crucial role to play in all of this: investment will come if the demand and potential is there, and that is in your hands.

Don’t let this be the year you merely dabble in the PWR: roll up your sleeves and commit to it with Marlie Packer energy and Neve Jones relish. Get stuck in.

As 2024 gets underway, we’ve never been in a better place – but we need to be restless within that, to ensure that the best is yet to come.

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Chris929 190 days ago

ideal scenario would have been TNT pick the game of the weekend to show and 2 other games shown on the bbc iplayer/website as before. being accessible and visible is huge. this season its not. It is important that young english players are getting opportunities but equally its important the league is competitive. if the red roses squad are mostly at the top few clubs,how do the other clubs compete without signing top foreign talent? we dont want big scorelines. why punish teams for trying to compete?maybe the red roses squad should be divided more equally among the clubs if the rfu insist on EQP numbers?

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Poorfour 191 days ago

For 2024, I’m very happy to see more non-EQPs in the squads and the coverage. Most of them are internationals in their own right, and many of them will be aiming to light upthe biggest stage at RWC 2025. The more we can build name recognition and get people interested in that, the greater the benefits for the women’s game as a whole - and by extension, all of rugby - will be

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