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Prioritising professionalism: Why Premier 15s and unions are leading the way

By Matt Merritt
Cara Wardle, Ella Wyrwas, Hannah Botterman, Zoe Harrison and Holly Aitchison of Saracens celebrate with the trophy following the Allianz Premier 15s Final between Saracens Women and Exeter Chiefs Women at Sixways Stadium on June 03, 2022 in Worcester, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Women’s rugby is one of the fastest growing sports on the planet, in the past few years it has built a significant foothold within the wider sport while also creating its own audience who didn’t see themselves reflected in the crowds at your typical club or international game.

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That growth has led to repeated calls to professionalise the women’s game and over the past month we’ve seen the RFU announce a change to the Premier 15s as well as announcements from the Scottish and Welsh unions.

The Allianz Premier 15s announcement was perhaps the biggest bombshell of these, a ten-year strategy that will see the league form its own operating company, move towards professionalism and open up the prospect of growing beyond 10 teams.

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Scotland’s Chloe Rollie on her career to date and preparing for the World Cup | Tunnel Talk | Episode 2
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Scotland’s Chloe Rollie on her career to date and preparing for the World Cup | Tunnel Talk | Episode 2

There is no change for the forthcoming season, and while the play on the field will no doubt be even more exciting than we’ve come to expect, there will be a lot of attention to what goes on behind the scenes and each team’s movement up and down the table.

At the end of the 2022/23 season, we will likely see some new teams join and current top tier teams leave the league. With Leicester Tigers, London Irish and Bath among those applying to get in, there are far more teams than current space in the league.

DMP Durham Sharks are a likely bet to lose their place having finished last on the Premier 15s table in the last two seasons with only one win to their name with Sale Sharks also consistently dwelling at the bottom, but I can’t see a world where both northern teams are dropped so one of them may be safe, while the current exodus of players (and coaches) at Wasps begs the question of whether they will be in a position to maintain their spot given their loss of top talent to other clubs.

In likelihood though we probably will see one team go and one team join (and Wasps moving to Coventry to join their male counterparts). Thankfully the Premier 15s strategy caters for this, suggesting that aspiring teams who don’t get in will be given support to get to the point they can bid again as the league seeks to grow over the coming decade.

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Projections suggest revenue over this period will skyrocket to potentially £174 million with the RFU and clubs kicking in a further £48 million to cover the projected running costs. These costs include salaries for players, increased support teams at each club, including coaches, strength and conditioning and medical and lifestyle support.

There is also a push to significantly increase the off-field investment, moving all games to stadiums instead of the current mix of Gallagher Premiership stadia, university pitches and even local club grounds. This is all with the aim of securing a free-to-air television deal, built around higher quality broadcasts.

If, like me, you tend to be a positive person then this probably sounds great and I agree that there’s a lot to be excited about here, but there are questions too…

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Where does all the money come from? Most clubs aren’t exactly flush, so this is a further drain on the resources of the likes of Saracens and Sale. Wasps are already in the news for being late to pay back bonds their fans raised for their move to Coventry, as such there must be questions over the validity of moving their women’s set up into the midlands too, and whether they can afford to maintain and improve it.

Loughborough Lightning and Gloucester-Hartpury are both affiliated to universities who can’t really be expected to kick in further millions of pounds so their partner clubs (Gloucester and Northampton respectively) will inevitably become more involved and could erode the identity of the women’s teams somewhat.

We also need to question: when is the right time to expand the league? For anyone who follows Championship 1 (the highest tier of rugby below Premier 15s), you’ll be aware there is plenty of talent around the league that is capable of stepping up, indeed many players have played some Premier 15s and will play more in the future. Indeed, last season you had some great talent turning out in the league below.

Exeter Chiefs’ Charlie Willett played for Cullumpton RFC in Championship 2 south west, while the winners of that league – London Irish Emeralds – had former Wasp Georgia Wood as captain and Amy Montague, previously part of the Harlequins set up, join mid-season to bolster their scrum. So there’s plenty of players who have the potential to make the step up and given recent announcements and clubs stating their intentions to join the league, they may soon be needed.

In other news which bolsters the women’s game, the Welsh RFU announced on July 6th that they would add a further 17 full time contracts to their already contracted players, bringing them up to 32 full time players. This followed on from the Scottish RFU announcement in mid-June that they had offered 30 players contracts and would also be setting up two semi-pro teams.

There’s no news yet on where those teams will play or indeed who they will play against, but it does make us wonder, will these contracts, along with the inevitable Irish ones that follow – the IRFU are not in a rush as they didn’t qualify for the World Cup so expect them to announce in the autumn – lead to these unions wanting their players closer to home?

Scotland’s squad almost all play in the Premier 15s and Welsh players are key parts of the Bristol and Gloucester-Hartpury squads while Wasps have long had a pack built around Irish power (though a few of those players have moved on and we believe at least one more is set to announce they are leaving).

For me this seems an ideal time to consider some sort of Celtic League. If the three unions can agree on how to run it, there could be some superb match ups between Irish provinces, Scottish clubs and maybe Welsh regions? It also opens up a more realistic option for a European Cup in the future as currently Premier 15s clubs and French teams would undoubtedly dominate.

It’s probably fair to say that by the time this article is published we’ll see even more change coming… As I was writing this month’s column the announcement of a combined Team GB’ 7s squad came, another exciting bit of news that builds out the player pathways.

It’s hard to know what the women’s game will look like in 12 months, but I can’t help feeling that it’s only going to keep going from strength to strength if the Premier 15s and unions keep driving professionalism forwards and by the time World Cup 2025 takes place in England, I would expect the 82,000 seats of Twickenham to be sold out for the final!

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