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Sarries, Gloucester-Hartpury and Bears mean business as new Premier 15s season kicks off

By Claire Thomas
May Campbell of Saracens charges upfield during the Allianz Premier 15's Final between Saracens Women and Exeter Women at Sixways Stadium on June 03, 2022 in Worcester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The all-singing, all-dancing spectacle of the Allianz Premier 15s gets another run. Of course it does: it’s the best domestic women’s league in the world. It’s both a microcosm of, and a reason for, the global game’s meteoric ascent: brilliant athletes with brilliant personalities, blossoming audiences, and ever-increasing competitiveness.

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Last year’s grand finale saw two new protagonists at its heart, with bigger roles than ever before for Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears – whilst the perennial leading ladies of Saracens and Harlequins powered their way through to yet another play-offs closing number.

The curtain call featured many of the players who would go on to light up the World Cup – Alev Kelter, Emily Tuttosi, Alex Callender, and a whole troupe of Red Roses – and there wasn’t a single commentary on ITV’s coverage in which the impact of this very league on the tournament went unmentioned.

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Miraculously – they’ve managed to get the gang back together for a fifth edition (if we discount the campaign curtailed by Covid-19) – which is testament to the heart, herculean efforts, and glorious stubbornness of those at DMP, Worcester, and Wasps: all of whom might well have been absent this year.

The Allianz Cup proved a worthy press night – as the league’s future stars, and those already shining but not involved in New Zealand, went to battle over four rounds. Finally, though, the main event is on. The stands fill, the lights dim, and the titles roll on the BBC.

I’ll park the musical theatre metaphor now: it’s a too-flogged horse at this stage, and has suddenly fallen down, because – at this performance – you absolutely should be using your phones. Go to games, share your experiences far and wide, and do everything you can to make some noise about this league. Millions hauled themselves out of bed to watch the Red Roses and Black Ferns play one of the best World Cup finals there’s ever been: how marvellous it would be if they started supporting their local Premier 15s outfit.

For five pounds, you could head to StoneX Stadium next month and see Saracens up against Gloucester-Hartpury (for what it’s worth: this could well prove a preview for the 2023 final). That’s a fiver to watch Mo Hunt, Alysha Corrigan, Zoe Harrison, and Tatyana Heard in action. For the cost of a pint, you get to marvel at Marlie Packer and Maud Muir operating at world-class level, and have the chance to meet them post-match: these are women who regularly put that longed-for hot shower on hold so they can – bloodied, muddied, and bruised – give back to the game. As if they hadn’t given enough already. Whether you do so through your telly or in the flesh: Watch. The. Games.

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Round One, then. It’s got to be said: the learnings aren’t quite as prophetic or significant as in previous years. World Cup returners have non-negotiable stand-down periods to undertake, so – whilst there were plenty of them present at fixtures – they weren’t on the pitch just yet, and there were fresh faces running out across the league.

I had the pleasure of covering Saracens against Loughborough Lightning, which usually feels a bit like an All-Star game, but most of the athletes I was familiar with were those I’d seen representing their university in the Women’s National League – rather than at this level. There’s a lot left to find out, and it’ll be Christmas before we’ve a good feel for how this season might unfold – but there was lots to love, and plenty of talking points, nonetheless.

As commentator Nick Heath put it perfectly in commentary – it often felt as though the reigning champions were chasing the game. They were, in fact, ahead – but fine territorial navigation by Lightning’s kickers (they have some brilliant young playmakers: they really do), and the fact that Lauren Bolger has the sort of top-end speed which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the F1 season finale – meant that Alex Austerberry’s women were forced to make every opportunity count. May Campbell’s excellence ensured that they converted the majority of 22 visits into points – whilst a last-gasp Georgia Evans score proved the cherry on top of the cake, and new arrival Flo Williams was eye-catchingly tricksy off the bench.

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Bristol look the real deal, but – then – we knew that already. They’ve lost a couple of flyers to the new GB Sevens set up, and you’d back Bears’ Rehab RFC to do pretty well as a standalone squad – such is the calibre of their injury list – but they still have class in abundance. There were passages of play last season when you felt they could win the whole thing, and it feels a matter of when – not if – some Allianz-branded silverware makes its way to Bear Country. They put Wasps to the sword, 62 to nil: carrying all of their momentum from an impressive Cup campaign to the top of the table, where they currently sit.

Sale co-captain Georgie Perris-Redding might have been forgiven a slow start to her season – the Eagle only stepped off the plane from New Zealand on Tuesday – but she was at the heart of their bonus point victory in an all-shark affair. New signing Alycia Washington was a notable scorer, along with Player of the Match and lynchpin Vicky Irwin, and – and it’s worth you marking your cards here – Courtney Pursglove. The winger was so prolific in this year’s Army versus Navy match at Twickenham that I experienced that bizarre phenomenon of saying something so many times you begin to wonder if it’s even a real word any more. Most of commentary that day was shouting ‘Pursglove’ excitedly: she was devastating, and will be a massive asset to a Sharks back line now missing the dynamism of Jodie Ounsley.

Gloucester-Hartpury’s summer recruitment has been formidable, and you only need to speak to Mo Hunt for a few minutes about goings-on at ‘The Circus’ to get a feel for what a special set-up Sean Lynn has crafted. They’re a family, and you suspect those bonds have been invaluable to the scrum-half over the last couple of months. She was at the heart of Saturday’s siege of Fortress Sandy Park – a try, an assist, and the usual boundless energy – and we’ll soon get used to the Cherries producing such results. I’d be stunned if Gloucester-Hartpury weren’t in the semi-finals this year, and can’t wait to see more of Sophie Bridger at this level. The centre led Hartpury University to the Women’s National League trophy last season, and is – to put it simply – an absolute baller.

We’ve arguably kept the best until last. The University of Worcester Warriors had notched a victory by simply competing this season, but Jo Yapp isn’t someone who settles for a participation badge – and they came away from The Stoop with a bonus point win, and a first over the 2021 champions in ten attempts. Captain Vicky Laflin is a wonderful, evasive runner – and bagged herself a brace before reflecting on the ‘outstanding’ togetherness of this team. Yapp reckons there’s a lot more to come from her outfit, who will head to Sale next week brimming with confidence – and hoping to establish a firm foothold in the table. All eyes will be on Loughborough-Quins, too: two giants of the league determined to open their account, points-wise.

What did we learn? That this league entertains without its headline acts, but will only grow more enthralling upon their return. That Gloucester-Hartpury and Bears mean business, and that University of Worcester Warriors aren’t just ‘happy to be here’. And that, although we were exhausted and (many of us) heartbroken after that final at Eden Park, we’re nowhere near saturation when it comes to the wonderful world of women’s rugby.

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