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The best single unit in the Wales side is the formidable back row.

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Times for the Premier 15s are A-Changin'

By Matt Merritt
Gloucester-Hartpury's Sam Monaghan in action during the Allianz Premier 15s match between Harlequins and Gloucester-Hartpury at Twickenham Stoop on January 22, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

‘Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam. And admit that the Premier 15s has grown…’ I could go on, but you get the picture. The Premier 15s has been evolving every year since its inception but this year seems to be markedly different from the rest.

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Whether it’s Gloucester-Hartpury Women standing strong atop the league, the traditional team to beat Saracens Women barely inside the top four or Wasps Women diving down to ninth, this league table looks nothing like a casual fan might expect.

We’re just shy of halfway through the season so what have we learnt so far? Gloucester-Hartpury certainly seem to be the real deal. Eight wins in as many games and all bar one coming with a bonus point. Sean Lynn’s team have also been happy to mix it up, both in terms of who they select and how they are deployed. Wales international Sisilia Tuipulotu has appeared at prop, lock and in the back row, while Zoe Aldcroft has moved from the second row to most recently being deployed at eight and not missing a beat.

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Before the season a lot of noise was made about Lynn’s recruitment, and understandably so as he brought in the likes of Sarah Beckett, Alex Matthews and Maud Muir. It’s been the long-time cherry and whites who have been the catalyst for their success though. Aldcroft continues to excel, Emma Sing grows with every game and Natasha Hunt is playing some of the best rugby of her career as she continues to show why England were foolish to leave her at home for the World Cup.

Their win over Harlequins on Sunday may have been their most impressive yet. Quins had featured in every Premier 15s final until last year when they lost to Saracens in the semi-final. Nonetheless they’ve maintained their spot in the top four with a string of victories, but in the first half their visitors systematically picked them apart. The final score showed just eleven points between the teams but that papered over a gulf in performance. In fact, their fortunes only really picked up when one of their own new signings, Wallaroos fly-half Bella McKenzie, was introduced. Her direct running and silky distribution took her team up a gear and will be integral if Harlequins wish to return to playing for the trophy.

It was also the debut for Quins’ most recent acquisition, and if the sight of Abby Dow wearing quarters is one we will get used to soon enough, the glimpses of her isolated on the wing and barely involved in play will continue to stand out as confusing for a while yet.

Dow is, of course, the latest player to leave Wasps Women and if any team has truly changed this season it is them. Twyford Avenue may not be the most glamorous ground in the league but until recently it was one that teams feared to travel to. Wasps’ expansive game and lethal scoring touch meant they could never be counted out, but as issues emerged with their namesakes in Coventry so the team in Acton began to come apart at the seams. First Giselle Mather left and then, one-by-one, the team she had built began to fall away.

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What’s left is a shell of their former team, held together by the willpower and belief of Liz Crake and filled out with talented young players who haven’t had the time to gel or the experience to be able to impose themselves on the game at the elite level. Since November they’ve not even been able to field a full bench of replacement players, with only four substitutes available when they travelled north last weekend, losing 25-0 to Sale Sharks Women in the process. These players will be wearing different shirts next season but the experience they gained in black and gold will be invaluable.

By contrast, the only team below them. DMP Sharks have made a raft of signings, including five USA internationals and Scotland hooker Elis Martin. It didn’t help them much on their trip to Loughborough but the 47-7 score line may indicate the first green shoots of improved performance and they have never lacked perseverance or team spirit to help them along.

Exeter Chiefs Women continue their march forward, handily defeating Bristol Bears 41-0 at Sandy Park. An Exeter win may not have been a surprise, but the Bears boast some potent firepower so to see them scoreless shows how much Chiefs continue to grow.

Flo Robinson is flourishing in the scrum half role, with a standout performance a couple of weeks ago and a consistent presence behind their powerful pack, while Kate Zackary has moved from eight to outside centre and looks born to the role, clattering through opposition defensive lines and linking up well with compatriot Gabby Cantorna. Their trio of former Wasps have added to their firepower too, Cliodhna Moloney reinforcing an already stacked front row, Edel McMahon giving them a natural openside flanker option and Claudia MacDonald continuing her electric World Cup form on the wing.

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Which brings us back to Saracens. Winning 64-20 against Worcester Warriors righted some wrongs after their loss to Exeter the previous week, but they still seem to be finding their feet a little bit.

Speaking to Alex Austerberry before his side faced Worcester, he saw the positives in a loss at this stage of the season. “It gives us focus. If you’re winning, the danger is it papers over the cracks. It’s not driven by the result though, the people in the room, we’re driven to maximise our potential. If you get too tied up with wins and losses, you miss the real opportunities to be the best version of yourselves.”

It’s something Saracens fly-half Zoe Harrison reiterated. “Losing isn’t a great feeling, none of us like it. We want to get back to our winning ways so our drive is higher than it’s ever been.”

That drive, the compete level Saracens Women bring to the biggest games, has traditionally set them apart at the business end of the season and has paid off with Saracens winning all but one of the Premier 15s finals since the league’s inception.

What we’re seeing this year is that other teams are rising to their level and more than ever before the reigning champions will have a mountain to climb in order to retain their title.

While it’s too soon to say this is a changing of the guard it does feel like the traditional dominance is falling away and the battle for the top is wider open than it ever has been before.

As is often the case, there’s a song that says it all better than I ever could. ‘As the present now, will later be past. The order is rapidly fadin’. And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin’.

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