The All-Stars, the Circus, and the Wolfpack: 'The big three' hurtling towards the play-offs
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.
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.
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’.
?1/3 Swapping cheerleading for rugby ? pic.twitter.com/mfp3ySUsjX
— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) February 26, 2023
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.
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%.
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.
? A fun day out at the circus!
— Saracens Women (@SaracensWomen) February 25, 2023
Saracens: P12 W9 Points 45
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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