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Premier 15s: 'We need to have 6-8 teams consistently competitive before we add more clubs'

By Rachael Burford
Wasps FC Women applaud Rachael Burford of Harlequins during the Premier 15s Semi Final 2nd Leg at Twickenham Stoop on April 14, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Broadway - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Imagesges)

Back in June, the Rugby Football Union outlined plans to professionalise the Premier 15s within the next ten years as part of a new strategy. Columnist Rachael Burford gives her thoughts on a league that has seen impressive growth since being reinvented in 2017.

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I think the initial press release that came out seems really positive and it’s really good that the RFU are investing and planning for the future of the league. If you consider where the league is going in terms of the upward trajectory of attendances, playing standards and exposure, a long-term strategy is really important.

We’ve got to ensure that investment continues from clubs and also from the RFU and I think we’ve seen the rewards from the league so far in terms of that investment. The unbeaten run and performances of the Red Roses has been clear to see, but also the new players coming through academies of clubs and building their identities, whether that’s English or players coming from abroad.

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The influx of the overseas players has also strengthened the entire women’s international game with the amount of competitive game time, coaching and playing standards they’re exposed to in the Premier 15s.

And I think it’s important the league states its ambitions and intent and presenting such an ambitious strategy with a nod to the future encourages sponsors and broadcasters and fills them and us players with confidence.

I also think it’s hugely exciting from a playing point of view, the fact that they want player involvement. What that will exactly look like, we’re not sure yet, but having players at the heart of these decisions and involved in the direction it’s going in is critical and that’s what they’ve alluded to in their press release.

I certainly think the approach from the RFU needs to be a collaborative one, working with all clubs and players to identify what the right route is for the league and how to make it sustainable and successful.

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You could argue that the majority of the clubs are semi-professional in some capacity already. It’s just how you continue to uplift that in a sustainable way whilst also growing the brand of the women’s game. A lot of clubs will have a different approach and different finances, facilities, and resources available.

With this in mind I think it’s right that the RFU is looking to the league to be its own entity and not solely run by the union. It’ll be owned by the RFU and clubs in the league, but led by an independent chief executive which I think is a positive thing. I think it’s really important to have somebody who is visionary and solely focussed on the Premier 15s and the direction it’s going to take.

I absolutely think adding more clubs and teams is the way forward for the future. You want to have a league with a greater geographical spread and greater opportunities for players across the entire country.

However, I’m not sure it’s quite ready just yet. If we look over the last few years, at the moment there’s only been a couple of teams who have been really in the running for semi-final places and it’s only really been this year where we’ve been unsure of who’s going to make the last four play-off spots.

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We need to get to the stage where it’s six, seven, even eight of the teams are consistently competitive, where it’s a race to the end of the year, and when we get to that stage where it’s highly competitive, I think that’s when you could look at the expansion of more teams.

And perhaps the answer to that is partnering with Premiership clubs, even the ones who don’t traditionally have a connection with a men’s team, like how Loughborough Lightning linked up with Northampton Saints- those kind of partnerships can help with exposure and finances and help teams to blossom.

This summer has seen a lot of player movement in terms of clubs. I expected this to be honest. A lot of players will be at the World Cup from the middle of September and that’s normally a transition year for a lot of players. Historically, World Cups are done in the summer and then there’s player movement post that World Cup, whereas this isn’t the case this time as it’s happening during the beginning of season and players have made that jump a bit earlier. I’d say you’ll always normally see a bit of movement after a World Cup with players looking for a new challenge.

We also now have contracts in the game where players need to sign and know where they’re going to be and clubs need to know what they have and what they don’t have. You can see that more and more pressure is being put on every single team to deliver a world class, high performance, daily training, environment with excellent coaches and facilities and all are trying to make things more attractive for players.

If clubs don’t provide this or simply don’t have the finances then you’ll get a massive player exodus, similar to the one we’ve seen at Darlington Mowden Park Sharks over the past five years- the club recently announcing the need to crowd fund to keep their place in the top league displays how much disparity there is.

Another club we’ve seen players moving away from more recently is Wasps. It must be hard for Wasps fans seeing this, especially losing Director of Rugby Giselle Mather. It’s really surprising to see Giselle leave Wasps. She’s been the heart beat of that club for so long since she arrived in 2017.

I remember when she was announced as Director of Rugby and it was probably one of the most progressive things a club had done at that stage, nobody actually had a DoR for the women’s game in place and they instilled that trust in Giselle.

I remember having a phone call with her and she was like, ‘where are all my internationals? I’ve got no internationals. What’s going on?!’

And from that position she brought in and rebuilt an entire empire, nurtured and developed players and got them to three consecutive semi-finals.

She’s reintroduced so many players and got them back to international honours or beginning an international career like Maud Muir and Ellie Boatman, so I think it’s a big loss for the club.

Whatever the reasons for her leaving, to see her announced as Director of Women’s Rugby at Ealing Trailfinders who are looking to book a place as one of the clubs in next season’s Premier 15s, is a smart and progressive move.

She’s a great coach and human being so it doesn’t surprise me she had something ready and waiting in the wings, and I wish her the best of luck down the road in Ealing.

From a Harlequins perspective having Amy Turner joining as head coach, I think is really progressive of the club to invest in a young and up and coming coach. She was captain and player-coach for Quins for a period of time and if you look at her CV she has done so much since she hung up her playing boots. She’s earnt her stripes with England Under 2os and as an Intern within the Red Roses set up and she’s taken the opportunity when it cropped up at Harlequins.

The element of having a female head coach is really beneficial and I think we underestimate how important that is. She’s a life-long friend of mine, we grew up playing together and both went on our first senior England tour together, so to see her excel in her field is really great to see.

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