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Sarries vs Quins: Premier 15s' unmissable duel

By Claire Thomas
Harlequins and Saracens players prepare for a scrum in Premier 15s Round 3. Credit: Ben Lumley Photography

I think there’ll be a new name on the Premier 15s trophy this year.

If the official engraver’s reading this – I’d get practising your Gs and Xs, if I were you. Similarly – if there’s a sale on at the confetti cannon store between now and June, the RFU should really be snapping up the red, white, and green ticker tape. They’ll need one of them…

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The reigning champions are improving at a rate of knots, I know, and it doesn’t mean a jot if you finish the regular season so far above the rest that you experience altitude sickness, but then fail to win your knock-out fixtures. Sporting legend tends to only remember those who lifted the pot – traditionally, Saracens and Harlequins – so all you really need, for your own chapter in the history books, is eighteen good enough matches to get you to the two which matter. Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter could skip along at the table’s summit with all the lackadaisical ease of Finn Russell unlocking international defences, and then come unstuck over 80 winner-takes-all minutes.

I don’t think they will, though. Not with Sean Lynn and Susie Appleby involved. Not with Mo Hunt and Kate Zackary lending their holy trinities of passion, smarts, and brilliance. Not with the Cherry and Whites’ stonking squad depth and all-court game, or the learnings Chiefs took from last year’s final – when they crashed into a Marlie Packer-shaped final hurdle, and felt the sting of a runner-up’s medal. They’re deadlier than ever for coming just short.

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I think there’ll be a new name on that trophy this year, but also implore you to get as excited as I am for Saturday’s clash of the two names already on it: Saracens and Harlequins. It’s being billed as ‘The Duel’, and remains one of the fixtures you scrawl straight into your calendar when the season’s schedule is released. It’s third versus fourth, Zoe Harrison versus an Emily Scott-Arabella McKenzie axis, Alex Austerberry versus Amy Turner, and a whole lot of previous.

These sides have met 13 times since the Premier 15s was formed. Saracens have won seven. They drew once, in the 2020/21 season. On five occasions, Harlequins have taken the spoils. Four play-off fixtures: Saracens lifting the trophy in the league’s inaugural year, defending it the next, experiencing their first defeat in 2021’s final, and then dumping Harlequins out at the play-offs stage last season. Their latest meeting? A nervy third round affair, which Turner’s women edged 19-10, thanks to a picking-and-going Tove Viksten proving as inevitable as me claiming I’d stay up for the whole Super Bowl – and then not even making it to Rihanna.

There’s always so much at stake when these sides meet: London derby bragging rights, some of the most precious table points of the campaign, and shop window prominence when it comes to international selection. There are world class head-to-heads everywhere you look, and players have described these clashes as more intense than a Test match. When you look at the team sheets, that’s no surprise: fifteen of Simon Middleton’s World Cup squad play for these sides, Quins recently signed a seriously talented trio of Wallaroos, and six Celtic internationals regularly run out for Saturday’s hosts. It’s a truly global affair – concentrated into 700 square metres of AstroTurf in North London.

Despite losing in December, Saracens are favourites for the rematch. They’ve home advantage, and are finally rounding into their customary, opposition-flattening, form – having lost a previously unthinkable three of their first six. Their 7–53 thumping at the StoneX, delivered by table-toppers Gloucester-Hartpury, was one of the most surreal fixtures I’ve ever covered – I couldn’t believe how suffocated the women in black looked – but they were without a host of Red Roses at that stage. Holly Aitchison was back from post-World Cup rest, but that was it. No Zoe Harrison, no Marlie Packer, no Poppy Cleall, and no superstar signing Jess Breach. They’d only return the following month – to put 89 unanswered points (44 from that quartet of internationals alone) on round five’s sacrificial lambs, DMP Sharks.

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It would prove a slight false dawn – Chiefs sent them home empty-handed from the next week’s trip to Fortress Sandy Park – but the Wolfnaissance had been set in motion, and the results since have been emphatic. Saracens have run rampant in their last four, with an average score line of 62 – 8 – despite three of them being played on the road – and they seem to have rediscovered their snarl. I still back Gloucester-Hartpury or Exeter to get the job done, but – if anyone can derail them – it’s these women.

If they’re restored to their marmalising best by the business end of the season, I might be eating my own words with a slice of humble pie – as Lotte Clapp lifts a trophy she’s raised so often she should probably be paying second home tax on the Premier 15s podium.

Only points difference sees them above Harlequins in the table – a Harlequins who’ve been baffling to follow this season. They stumbled from the blocks against Worcester Warriors in round one, and looked so at sea against Chiefs in December that they practically crossed The Channel. And, yet, they’ve had moments when they’ve sparkled – and there’s plenty more to come from a team figuring out the most lethal configuration of their abundance of back line riches.

McKenzie and Scott are box office on their day, Lagi Tuima is in a real purple patch, whilst slalom-merchants Ellie Kildunne and Abby Dow speak for themselves – and haven’t even been joined by Ellie Boatman yet. What they’re missing is consistency, but there’s nothing quite as motivational as a trip to the back yard of your great rivals, and a chance to emerge more Burr than Hamilton from this most loaded of duels. If Harlequins get up for one occasion in 2023 – it’s this one.

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Saracens have really invested in their marketing this season, and have committed to Saturday with all the relish of a May Campbell five metres from the whitewash: there has been a dedicated press conference this week, they’ve lovingly produced and shared promotional content, and have even rolled out the red carpet of hospitality tickets for the occasion – a first for a women’s-only matchday. If you can’t get to North London – it’ll be on Premier15s channels, BBC iPlayer, and BBC Sport’s website – so there is absolutely no excuse for missing out on what’ll be a ferocious tussle.

After all, as much as the record books will commemorate the names etched into that trophy, much more than those winners will resonate if you buy into the whole season. The Red Roses might not have won the World Cup, but we’ll never forget Dow’s semi-final wonder score – nor the grace and articulacy of Sarah Hunter after the final itself. Worcester won’t top the league this year – but the raw emotion on show as they beat Harlequins in round one have stayed with many of us.

Rocky Clark referring to herself as a ‘fossil’, and making commentator Nick Heath laugh so much that he briefly had to let the match play out to the sound of sniggers will forever be a highlight – as will the twenty seconds during which Liz Crake went full Godzilla at Franklin’s Gardens, and epitomised the fight of all those at Wasps this season.

Details beyond who won the championship matter, and can be indelibly marked amongst a league’s followers. So, with that in mind, let Saturday be one of them. Saracens versus Harlequins is unmissable each and every time, and – even if it’s not a preview of the final this time around – you’d be mad to miss it.

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