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The All-Stars, the Circus, and the Wolfpack: 'The big three' hurtling towards the play-offs

By Claire Thomas
Holly Aitcheson of Saracens: Saracens Women v Gloucester-Hartpury, Allianz Premier 15s, StoneX Stadium, Hendon, London - 10/12/2022 © Matthew Impey / Wired Photos Picture by Matt Impey

Write Saracens off at your peril. Metaphorically, that is: no one would be foolish enough to write a thousand words literally writing Saracens off. Imagine. They’d look a right chump. Ahem.

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In Round 12, the claws of sporting jeopardy seized the Premier 15s table, and gave it a thorough rattle. For the first time since the season kicked off, there’s not a cherry on top of the standings, but a chief: Exeter – who swatted Loughborough Lighting aside at Sandy Park – made history by hitting the table’s summit for the first time since their formation. Saracens, meanwhile, raided Kingsholm – reminding us all of their bruising class – and there’s a baguette, rather than a bagel, in the ‘loss’ column for Gloucester-Hartpury.

With six rounds remaining, this has exploded into a three-horse race. Susie Appleby’s global all-stars, Sean Lynn’s barnstorming circus, and Alex Austerberry’s rejuvenated wolfpack.

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So – with exactly two thirds of the regular season played: let’s take a look at these runners and riders.

Exeter Chiefs: P12 W11 Points 55

Key stat: If rugby is about scoring more than you get scored on (it is), then Chiefs have cracked it. The Devonians currently boast a points difference of +528: 20 more than the league record, which Saracens managed in the 2018/19 season. Their attack is prolific – 95 tries and counting – and their defence is peerlessly stingy: they’ve conceded just 13.

Cheat code: Hope Rogers. She’s a beaming wrecking ball with great taste in scrunchies: a rock solid scrummager who is utterly destructive ball-in-hand. Veritably unstoppable from short range, but also someone who pops up on canny midfield lines, executes deft tip-ons, and who can really motor if you’re foolish enough to give her space. As the delightful Charli Jacoby told us at half-time: ‘everyone knows that Hope is world class. She can do it all. I love having her on my team – I’ll tell you that’.

Bright young thing: Maisy Allen. It’s really quite tough to do justice to how impressive Allen is. At 21, she’s an essential cog in Exeter’s star-studded back row, a leadership figure within a squad overflowing with international experience, and the competition’s leading try-scorer – despite having only played eight matches. Her impact is immense, and yet – absurdly – two of the best players on Planet Rugby, Marlie Packer and Sadiya Kabeya, are also English opensides, so she might not get a Six Nations call up. Appleby described her as ‘integral’ on Saturday, having given the flanker a massive hug en route to the live stream studio: she’s nurtured this prodigious talent for three years now, as she’s blossomed into one of the most relentlessly impressive forwards in the league.

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Achilles heel: a gnarly (technical term) fixtures list. Exeter are sitting pretty for now, but they’ve a ghastly final six rounds. First up? A trip to London this weekend for the 2023 Big Game, where they’ll need to topple a fully revved-up Harlequins at Twickenham. Then, after the international break, it’s Saracens, Bristol, and Gloucester-Hartpury – all on the road – in the space of a month. Chiefs are happy travellers, and haven’t lost away this season, but that’s a daunting run-in.

Gloucester-Hartpury: P12 W11 Points 54

Key stat: 14 of Gloucester-Hartpury’s starters against Saracens had senior caps, with a further six internationals on the bench. To field a side of that quality – despite having Alex Matthews, Ellie Rugman, Emma Sing, Zoe Aldcroft and Lisa Neumann all unavailable – is testament to their unmatched depth, and the hugely attractive culture Head Coach Lynn has developed.

Cheat code: their halfbacks. Natasha Hunt and Lleucu George possess two of the best skillsets and rugby brains in the league – and Gloucester-Hartpury are thriving as a result. Hunt’s the side’s heartbeat – emotionally and in attack – as is reflected in her involvement in a fifth of their scores. I’ve googled George’s age so often when preparing for matches that I now know her birthday off by heart, because she’s so composed and clinical that I’m sure I’ve remembered it wrong: ‘she can’t possibly be just 22…’ The pair are each capable of turning a game on its head in a moment – whether that’s unleashing their flyers, or masterfully controlling territory right up until the Cherry and Whites’ formidable forwards can strike.

Bright young thing: Sophie Bridger is the West Country’s answer to Beatrice Rigoni – and that’s highest praise indeed. The centre plays mesmerically fun rugby – you sit up a little each time she gets the ball – and her highlights reel is rapidly becoming both feature length and Oscar-worthy. She found herself out of position on Saturday against Saracens, after winger Neumann’s withdrawal, but managed a brace against the reigning champions – and you suspect the 23-year-old’s only just getting started. A mention, too, for Neve Jones – who has a physics-defying amount of bounce to the ounce, and has proven a 5’2 revelation: smashing rucks, pilfering possession, and tackling at 99%.

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Achilles heel: Exeter were fantastic last year, but – on the biggest stage of them all – came unstuck. They’d won the Allianz Cup, but hadn’t played truly top level knockout rugby, and we didn’t see the best of them in the final against Saracens – who’ve so many Premier 15s titles at this stage their jerseys are veritably galaxy print. This year, it’s Gloucester-Hartpury who look set to be the play-off debutants, and you wonder how that’ll affect things. They’re magnificent, but can they replicate that under the highest pressure – and over 80 winner-takes-all minutes? Even though, should they reach the final, they’ll essentially have home advantage – it’s being played at Kingsholm – it’ll be uncharted territory, and the most important match of their club careers.

Saracens: P12 W9 Points 45

Key stat: Saracens’ points difference before Christmas? -19. In 2023? +316. It’s almost as though getting Marlie Packer, Poppy Cleall, and Zoe Harrison back from a World Cup is an enormous boost…

Cheat code: To say Packer is ageing like a fine wine is an understatement. She’s the Dorian Gray of rugby – except, rather than a cursed painting rotting in her attic – she’s just got piles and piles of medals, and a box of plumbing kit she’s not needed ever since the RFU made one of their best ever signings. Having Packer on your team is worth at least ten points – and, if the Premier 15s had a fantasy league, she’d be the million pound asset. The back rower averages 12 carries, ten tackles, four defenders beaten, three turnovers, a try, and a player of the match interview from a pear tree each time she plays. I think that settles that.

Bright young thing: Kelsey Clifford’s not missed a match this season for the Women in Black, and has managed four tries whilst proving a lynchpin on both sides of Saracens’ scrum – which is the second best in the league. The England U20’s a hustler in open play – it’s probably hard not to get swept up in the ferocious work rate of May Campbell, whose stats are astonishing this season – and seems to average at least one ‘oooft’-eliciting hit a match.

Achilles heel: the simultaneous strength and lack of depth of Saracens’ squad. Austerberry has plenty of genuinely world class athletes at his disposal – but many of them will be named in Six Nations squads this week, and he needs them to return fit and healthy for the play-offs. They really struggled without their international supremos at the start of this season, and – if anything were to happen to Packer, Cleall, Jess Breach, or Georgia Evans during the tournament – you’d get much longer odds on their title defence. Whilst several key Chiefs’ talismans are from outside of the Six Nations, and Gloucester-Hartpury have the deepest squad in the league – Saracens just haven’t got those resources this year. We also don’t yet know the extent of Zoe Harrison’s injury, and – whilst Flo Williams wore that number ten jersey with aplomb at the weekend – the Red Rose is an irreplaceably classy act.

Exeter. Gloucester-Hartpury. Saracens. There you have it. The trio at the top: surely three of our four semi-finalists. Some almighty encounters await.

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1 Comment
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Antony 507 days ago

Great summary - stuffed with enthusiasm and facts - will have to read twice to make sure I absorb all the stats - love it.

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Jon 1 hours ago
Why Scott Robertson may need to ease big names aside for All Blacks' flexibility

> it was apparent Robertson was worried about his lack of experience at half-back, hence the decision to start veteran TJ Perenara and put Finlay Christie, the next most experienced number nine, on the bench. I don’t think it was this at all. It was a general scope he was putting over all the playerbase, he went with this cohesion factor in every position. > If the main priority is to build different tactical elements to the gameplan, then Ratima is the man in whom Robertson needs to trust and promote. This also I think is antagonist towards the reference game plans. The other plans do not need the speed of which Perenara (atleast) can’t provide, and I think personal is going to be the main point of difference between these games/opponents. That is the aspect of which I think most people will struggle to grasp, a horses for course selection policy over the typical ‘Top All Black 15’. That best 15 group of players is going to have to get broken down into categories. So it test one we saw Christie control the game to nullify the English threats out of existence and grind to a win. In test two we saw Ratima need to come on which dictated that this time they would run them off their feet with speed and the space did open up and the victory did come. Horses for courses. The same concepts are going to exist for every group, front row, lock and loose forward balance, midfield, and outside backs all can have positional changes that the players may be asked to accentualize on and develop. There might be some that _it_ will not ever click for, but they’ll hopefully still be getting to enjoy unbelievable comeback victories and late game shutouts to close it down. Knowing does not mean not enjoying.

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