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The changing face of Premiership Women's Rugby

By Matt Merritt
EXETER, ENGLAND - JUNE 22: Steph Else and Millie Hyett of Gloucester-Hartpury pose for a photograph with the PWR Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby Final Trophy as they celebrate victory after Gloucester-Hartpury defeat Bristol Bears during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby Final match between Bristol Bears and Gloucester-Hartpury at Sandy Park on June 22, 2024 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Pat Elmont/Getty Images)

This year was the inaugural season of Premiership Women’s Rugby, the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Premier 15s and continues the growth and development of elite women’s club rugby in England.

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The rebrand heralded a changing of the guard on the pitch as new names stepped up, fresh faces adorned social media posts and advertising hoardings, while we have seen veteran players hang up their boots.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in leafy Twickenham, as Harlequins Women announced a spate of retirements, among them a notable trio who have formed the nucleus of the team for much of its existence.

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Rachael Burford has been a key component of Quins’ successes. Possessing the sort of passing ability that has commentators rushing for superlatives, as well as a natural aura of leadership, when she was at 12 and guiding her team they were often unbeatable.

Burford has also done (and continues to do) brilliant work off the field, from founding the Girls Rugby Club to media work across TV, radio and podcasts and senior roles within World Rugby, she has been and will continue to be a driving force for the game.

Also exiting stage left is Shaunagh Brown, who was for a while probably the most recognisable of the Red Roses, both for her hard running approach to the game and her uncompromising honesty in interviews.

Brown has regularly spoken out on the lack of opportunities in the sport for people of colour and others from outside the traditional rugby community.

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Perhaps less of a name to casual fans, Emily Scott’s retirement might be the most keenly felt at the Stoop, however.

Scott has always been an enigma, a player capable of creating opportunity seemingly out of thin air. She’s adored by the Harlequins faithful and has been there for many of their biggest moments.

With her own cache of Red Roses caps, she was no slouch at international level either.

It’s not merely a London-centric phenomenon, with Sale Sharks Women announcing that Vicky Irwin will move to a back-office role.

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Irwin may not have the name value of some who we have previously mentioned, but she’s been an integral piece of the Sharks puzzle and her team-mates will surely miss her presence in the changing room.

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But while we have seen those faces, and many others, step away from the playing field recently, a number of new names have grasped their opportunity to show their quality.

I interviewed Millie Hyett earlier this year as she prepared for an England under-20s cap. At the time she had a couple of substitute appearances in PWR to her name, but since then she’s become a regular figure in the Gloucester-Hartpury 23, been named as a starter multiple times and came off the bench to help her team to the title at Sandy Park last weekend.

She’s played at 10, 12 and 13 for club and at age-grade level for her country and appears to have a bright future in the game.

On the opposing team in Exeter, Reneeqa Bonner was given a starting spot on the wing and was Bristol Bears’ most potent attacking threat.

Although she isn’t the biggest player, she’s deceptively powerful and it takes a lot of effort to bring her down. Bonner has an eye for a try too, and it can’t be too long until John Mitchell invites her into Red Roses camp for a closer look.

In north London, Sharifa Kasolo has already made herself known to England’s coaching team and looks to be the heir apparent to Marlie Packer in the Saracens back row, not that the Red Roses captain is going anywhere soon.

The thought of both Packer and Kasolo playing in the same pack for the next few years will terrify more than a few players around the league.

Shaunagh Brown PWR

Maddie Feaunati, meanwhile, has already earned international recognition and the powerful lock, who was reportedly offered a Black Ferns contract before choosing to return to England, has found herself at home in the Exter Chiefs pack, where her hard carrying and line breaking will make her a key figure.

Up in Sale, Morwenna Talling has put her run of injuries behind her and shown the form that had former England coach Simon Middleton capping her at just 18 years old.

Still only 21, she has the air of a veteran, and her physical prowess is matched by a greater knowledge of the game. Whether at lock or in the back-row she is a fearsome competitor, powerful but with a surprisingly soft pass that can unleash team-mates.

Ending where we began, at the Stoop there are plenty of familiar faces that Quins fans can still get behind.

Lagi Tuima is a popular figure and Ellie Kildunne will return from sevens duty next season, but if I were among those fans, the player I’d be getting very excited about is one who has teamed up with Hyett to great effect for England’s under-20s.

Ella Cromack is a fantastic young talent, a well-rounded fly-half, adept at bringing her team into games, with an excellent boot and an eye for a pass. She’s the sort of player you build a team around.

There are more players I could name of course, but this only goes to show that the times are changing; the players who built this league are hanging up their boots and it’s time for the next generation to take over.

Theirs are a set of stories I can’t wait to follow, and with the Women’s Rugby World Cup just a year away, I can’t wait to see who makes the most of their opportunities and forces Mitchell and his coaching team into some tough decisions.

The Women's Rugby World Cup 2025 is coming to England. Register now here to be the first to hear about tickets.

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Poorfour 21 days ago

A good article with a lot of truth to it. For me, it misses one important point: how effective will the RFU and PWR be at bringing new talent through to a level where we see a new generation competing for international honours?

The Centre of Excellence set up that existed until this year was somewhat variable in its execution, but having gone through the Quins squad yesterday to update it, it’s interesting how many of the players in the squad are CoE alumnae… but also how few of them are first team fixtures.

That’s partly a function of the relative immaturity of both PWR and its feeder system, but the RFU’s intervention to centralise the CoE system into regional Player Development Groups is clearly aimed at improving the proportion of players who transition from U16 and U18 county players to the Red Roses age grade teams and PWR.

Only time will tell, but it’s really important that the RFU capitalises on the talent that’s emerging. Speaking to coaches at Worthing College - who were national champions this year and last - they believe the next year’s squad is potentially even better than last year’s. England can’t afford to waste that.

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finn 6 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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