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Premier 15s: 'All dynasties eventually wash away. In Devon, a new power is rising.'

By Daniel Gallan
Saracens Women v Exeter Chiefs Women - Allianz Premier 15s Final

History teaches us that no empire lasts forever. The Akkadians were replaced by the Assyrians who were themselves replaced by the Babylonians. Next came the Persians, then the Macedonians, then the Romans. Like undulating waves that rise and crash, all dynasties eventually wash away.

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A similar narrative is unfolding in the Premier 15s. Since its launch in 2017, the top tier of women’s club rugby in England, almost certainly the most elite domestic product anywhere in the women’s game, has been dominated by Saracens.

In the first season the women in black from Barnet edged out Harlequins in the final after topping the league table. They repeated the trick a year later with an even greater margin of victory.

A lapse in 2021 after a covid-enforced break saw them lose their crown to their cross-town rivals in the showpiece match, but normal business was resumed last year when they won 18 of their 20 matches including a 43-21 drubbing of Exeter Chiefs in the title decider.

But all empires reach a high water mark as those under their yoke soon grow tired of subjugation. And out to the west in Devon, where the Chiefs call home, a new power is rising.

After 14 rounds of this current campaign the upstarts are top of the pile with 13 wins and only one defeat. Just a point behind is Gloucester-Hartpury, another ambitious force.

After an eight week break, the Premier 15s league resumes this weekend with the biggest ticket in town being Saracens v Exeter at the StoneX Stadium in north London on Sunday afternoon.

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Cut adrift in unfamiliar territory Saracens are currently third in the table, a full ten points behind their visitors.

Is this a sign that their reign has come to an end? And if so, has this caused panic through the camp like it’s the last days of Rome? Not so according to Saracens’ director of rugby, Alex Austerberry.

“It’s exciting,” he says with a broad smile. “We’re not the ones being chased, we’re doing the chasing. Obviously we want to be top of the league but it’s a unique challenge for us. But wherever we are in the league, a game at home against Exeter would be one that we would be relishing anyway.”

Saracens have played their would-be usurpers twice already this season. Both were away and both ended in defeat. In January Exeter ran in six tries in a thumping 37-19 win. And on the same day the Red Roses secured a Six Nations Grand Slam triumph, a young Chiefs side lifted the Allianz Cup after beating Saracens 29-19 at Sandy Park.

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“It’s not just another game,” explains Saracen’s captain, Marlie Packer, who is well rested after a break following her glorious day at Twickenham in national colours. “We’re not usually in this situation. We want to make sure we get back up the league and get the result we want from it.

“It’s really exciting,” she adds, referring to the burgeoning friction between the two groups. “We’ve got this massive rivalry. You know it’s going to be a battle out there. The physicality, the way both teams play, you know you have to be at your best. And that is what we want. We don’t want it to be only two or three games a season. We want the whole league to be like that. Rivalry will always be there between some clubs.”

Packer, an integral cog in the Saracens machine and an all-important ball carrier, has highlighted her personal dual with Maisy Allen in the back row. There are world class matchups across the park with over nine nationalities represented in the starting XVs.

Saracens have a smattering of foreign talent but Exeter’s is a truly cosmopolitan outfit with four Americans, two Canadians, two Irish and a player each from the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Wales, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand taking the field on Sunday. Austerberry cites this as a reason behind his rival’s recent success.

“You’ve got a lot of players from across the globe and Susie [Appleby, his opposite number] has done a great job of knitting them together. They’ve been competitive from the off which you’d expect. They’ve got a talented squad. It’s great to have competition because that forces you to be better.

“It gets [the media] going and gets the fans going. Ultimately, as competitive beasts, it gets us going. We want to be on the big stages and battling it out. That’s when you find out about yourself and those are the games that define you as a team. We want to be on the biggest stages competing as often as we can.”

Packer is indifferent to the composition of her opponents. “It doesn’t matter who we face or what nationality they’re from,” she says. “Any given day, we play any team, we have the attitude to go out and win.”

They’ll need to do just that. Consecutive defeats in December, when much of the squad had yet to return after the World Cup, has meant they’ve been playing catch up ever since. They’re comfortably ahead of Bristol in fourth but will want to secure a home semi-final by virtue of a top two finish.

“Home advantage is big,” says Austerberry. “You get that noise. It has an impact on players and hopefully some of the 50/50 decisions might just get a little bit in your favour with that crowd. You’re in your house. You’re comfortable. You know the wind direction and the parameters of the pitch. So hopefully it gives you that small little edge.

“The biggest thing for me is the crowd. It really is like a wall of noise. Even as a coach it gets the hair on the back of your neck standing up. It gives you real energy and a lift and will help us to potentially get a home semi final.”

The mark of truly great empires isn’t found in their ability to conquer new lands, but in their durability when confronted by external foes. Rome could absorb the catastrophic losses at Cannae or the Teutoburg Forest and pick up the fight another day.

Saracens have tasted defeat and can hear the clattering of shields over the horizon. Their hold on power is under threat. How they respond will determine their place in rugby history.

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