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Premiership Women’s Rugby - out with the crisps, in with the wacky clothes and new broadcast deal

By Claire Thomas
Credit: Tara Moore for Getty Images/PWR

In April 2018, I sat in Sky Sports’ production truck at Trailfinders Sports Ground in Ealing – feverishly logging Marlie Packer turnovers and fends for our analysis packages. A hundred metres away, in the biting cold and before a crowd of two thousand, Saracens won the inaugural Premier 15s.


All season long, when the Sky cameras had rolled into town, that day’s Player of the Match had received a duvet-sized packet of Tyrrell’s for their heroics, and we’d all become slightly obsessed with whether or not these actually contained crisps.

The sharing bag shebang was ridiculous, but the season was my first exposure to women’s club rugby – and I was hooked. How could anyone fail to be transfixed by Rachael Burford’s seemingly infinite range of passes? Or Lotte Clapp’s ability to carve defensive lines to ribbons? Or the eventual champions’ teenage agent of chaos, Hannah Botterman?

Sky didn’t cover many matches, but they gave each one ‘the Sky Sports treatment’: top-drawer presenters, reporters, and commentators; multiple, expertly-crewed cameras; on-site directors with decades of painstakingly-accrued rugby knowledge; fastidious statisticians; and purpose-crafted features and show inserts.

We spent hours filming with Burford and Clapp before one final, lovingly shooting their pre-match rituals in an intentionally dusty dressing room – all for 40 seconds of fabulously moody footage set to a grungy Bishop Briggs number.

A couple of years later, the RFU took production in-house, and committed to streaming two games a round online. In many ways, the resources available diminished, but it was a watershed moment: suddenly, everyone and anyone could watch top-tier women’s club rugby – 160 whole minutes of it each weekend. It wasn’t swish, but it was right there, on a plate, for your enjoyment and inspiration. “If you can’t see it”…

Ashleigh Wilmot and I would interview Giselle Mather pre-match through chattering teeth at an always-baltic Twyford Avenue, before Nick Heath or Nathan Middleton would – from a tiny scaffolding platform or precarious shed on stilts – bring the matches to life with boundless passion and knowledge.


On Mondays – we’d edit, script, and voice highlights from the remaining fixtures – so that every team’s story was told in some capacity. Until I invested in proper equipment, I’d fudge a little recording studio in my flat – waxing lyrical about Meg Jones’ latest escapades into my voice memos app, huddled beneath a duvet to muffle any passing sirens.

Eventually, iPlayer started to host half the matches, and the live streams started to feel a bit more like actual shows. The reporters doubled up as presenters, in front of the extra cameras which materialised – and the brilliant Kat Merchants, Mo Hunts, and other greats of the game who’d offer their insight would hustle madly to dash pitch-side to the gantry and back again. Just ask Kat what the hardest thing is about rugby punditry: I bet she says the perilous journey to and from the rooftop commentary position at Sixways…

Meticulously-produced features were commissioned, aiming to showcase the personalities and stories of the league’s protagonists – and the clubs were incredibly supportive when it came to access, information, and coercing injured players to join us at half-time each week. Meanwhile, a digital content guru called Calum worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring all of the above to the competition’s sparkling social platforms.

Then TNT (formerly BT Sport) began to cover matches, and we were reminded of just how sumptuous a Sophie Bridger break or Rachel Johnson tackle looked in high definition. Their shows for each year’s Big Game were knockout, and their shows for each year’s knockouts were suitably big – whilst ever-improving Six Nations offerings elsewhere whet the appetite for high-end production around women’s rugby.


This season, TNT will have the lot: one match per round, plus the playoffs, in glorious technicolour – and with some wonderful people involved, both in front of and behind the cameras. As things stand, just those three decisive matches will be available free-to-air, but those conversations are ongoing – and you really hope clubs will find the resources to stream fixtures not hosted by the platform. There’ll be highlights available, features fashioned, and supplementary items on their app and digital channels – plus all the trimmings IMG have promised to deliver via a new content strategy.

The headline is: this season should be the best coverage of the league we’ve seen to date – an unprecedented combination of high production value, regular programming, and comprehensive digital support – and that’s really exciting. What’s vital is that the work to make Premiership Women’s Rugby as easily accessible and discoverable as possible doesn’t stop for a second, because we need to grow this audience – as well as better serve the amazing community already in existence.

Right. Let’s chat rugby now – because the first game gracing our screens is Bristol Bears versus Sale Sharks – and that’s a truly outstanding pick.

Both have recruited brilliantly this summer – almost as eye-catchingly as Gloucester-Hartpury last season. Headed to Bear Country are the world-class Hannah Botterman and Holly Aitchison, and two huge talents at the heart of a resurgent Thistles – Ellian Clarke and Meryl Smith.

The transfer window has also seen England’s Detysha Harper head back up North, returning right on time from an Achilles rupture to bolster Sharks’ pack. The same can be said of Morwenna Talling, who had a real coming-of-age WXV 1, and Manchester-raised dual international Jo Brown – who’s tirelessly abrasive, and whose ‘heart was full’ after just a day back surrounded by Northern accents.

Finally, there’s Beatrice Rigoni, whose signature was the PWR equivalent of Finn Russell’s name going up in lights at The Rec. The Italian’s a fearless attacking tour de force with a staggering skillset, and it’s thrilling to think how good she could get under the tutelage of Katy Daly-McLean – another box office playmaker – whose 116 caps’ worth of experience might just add a clinical edge to the Azzurri’s decision-making.

What drew these notable names to the West Country and Unstoppable North? Perhaps it was the infectious passion and sky-high standards of Dave Ward – or the opportunity to absorb just a little of the fearsome drive and rugby acumen of Rachel Taylor and Daly-McLean.

Maybe the state-of-the-art facilities: both Bears (Abbots Leigh) and Sharks (Carrington) have the very swankiest of bases in which to hone their crafts. Bristol’s a cracking city in its own right, but it’s only made more alluring by the scope to rub shoulders with the likes of Sarah Bern, Alisha Butchers, and Amber Reed. Manchester’s an equally amazing place – and who could possibly meet the force of nature that is Sharks’ co-owner, Michelle Orange, and not ask where to sign?

These clubs aren’t just about amassing the jewels in the crown of women’s rugby, though: they’re mining their own diamonds, and unearthing dazzling local talents. Bristol’s Centre of Excellence is a tried and tested conveyor belt of – well – excellence: just look at Reneeqa Bonner and Grace White – whilst the prodigious Lizzie Duffy and Niamh Swailes are both woven from and into the Fabric of the North.

More reasons to watch these two raise the PWR curtain include, but aren’t limited to: the attacking, ambitious style of play Bears have developed; the way Abbie Ward’s been able to start her family whilst not wavering for a second in her ambitions for both club and country; the fact that #NorthernRugbyMatters (lest we forget: Sharks were made to wait for confirmation of their place in the competition this year, and they did not wait quietly).

Phoebe Murray and Lark Davies; Sale’s inarguable progress over the three seasons they’ve contested; Georgie Perris-Redding; the way Bears have cemented themselves as contenders under Ward’s tenure, and feel on the cusp of history; the barnstorming atmospheres we’ve enjoyed previously at Ashton Gate; how Sharks’ squad epitomises what a truly global league this is; Bristol’s pack of ballers – from Bern, to Simi Pam, and back again via Claire Molloy.

That scintillating glimpse we were treated to in Richmond this summer of just how devastating Sale can be when they click, as they gave Gloucester-Hartpury a good old rattle for forty minutes; and – finally – the chance that one of the cameras will capture the moment Rigoni reaches into one sock for her first strawberry sweet of the afternoon.

Upon signing for Sharks – the dinking, dummying, daredevil dynamo enthused about how ‘ambitious’ the club is, and her excitement to get stuck into ‘the best league in the world’. She’s not wrong: there is no domestic competition in the women’s game like the PWR – and it deserves all the bells, whistles, and fanfare TNT will throw at it.

It deserves you tuning in, too, and getting yourselves down to games, and whooping and hollering about it wherever you like to whoop and holler. Get involved, and tell all your friends. They might not be dishing out the giant bags of crisps anymore, but this thing never fails to entertain – so grab yourselves some popcorn, and settle on in.


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John 211 days ago

I does not seem that right way to increase the reach of Womens Rugby by hiding it behind a subscription channel. And then only one live match per round. There were 2 live streamed matches for free last year, so why not now. You need to put on more free to view live matches on BBC, ITV or youtube to increase the reach of the game. If not live streamed, then at least put the whole match on youtube afterwards for viewers to catch up on. I will have to wait for the 5 Nations for my live fix of Rugby again.

Antony 216 days ago

Lovely - nice bit of TV history and a rousing call to arms!

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