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Premier 15s semis: 'There’s going to be a new name on the trophy this year'

By Claire Thomas
GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 30: The Allianz Premier 15s Trophy is seen prior to the Allianz Premier 15s Final match between Harlequins Women and Saracens Women at Kingsholm Stadium on May 30, 2021 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

There’s going to be a new name on the Premier 15s trophy this year. Just let that sink in one more time. It’s barbecue season, after all: let the fact marinate for a moment. Let the heady Pimms of novelty infuse the fruit of rugby history.

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Come to think of it, Sean Lynn dresses for barbecues all year round – the man only owns shorts – and it’s hard to picture Susie Appleby without sunnies perched on top of her head. The grill of the league’s hotter than ever before, and the pair have certainly served up some mouthwatering entertainment this campaign.

A small part of me is tempted to simply repurpose large chunks of my Round 11 column, where I predicted the joyful prospect of a Gloucester-Hartpury versus Exeter Chiefs final – despite the rapid improvements of the ever-threatening reigning champions. Okay – a big part of me: it’s been a season of Herculean length, and I’m running low on metaphors, but I respect my editor too much to do that (hi, Lucy), so let’s give this a go…

This weekend, we got two proper, pukka, full-fat, supersize me semi-finals.

The first was as nerve-riddled as it was sun-saturated. Appropriately, given that we were at the home of ‘The Circus’, it was played as though on a tightrope: debutant cherries and second-album-sputtering bears launching speculative jabs at a great height – occasionally landing a blow, but mostly looking down at the safety netting and gulping nervously.

It was a mistake-strewn eighty – when the ‘unforced errors’ figures were enormous, but their descriptor felt a little unfair: both sides were inaccurate, yes, but they were being concertinaed into those mistakes by the size of the occasion. Lineouts misfired, passes were hurled past desperately-outstretched fingertips into touch, and mauls wilted to the ground in the heat of battle (or perhaps just a 4G in June).

The table-toppers were saved by their trademark bright start, their voracious line speed, and Bears’ struggle to utilise the world-class kickers at their disposal. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win – and that’s all that matters at this stage, and when you’ve never played a one-off semi-final at this level. Back in their favourite big top in a fortnight’s time, Lynn’s circus will have the opportunity to bring the house down.

Then, on Sunday, it was a gladiatorial slugfest. If Saturday’s protagonists were duelling on a knife edge, Chiefs and Saracens were housed in an amphitheatre – with the emperor of the match clock gazing down from on high, and only one of them able to emerge from the encounter. They threw everything at one another – absolutely everything – and the second forty was easily one of the best halves of rugby I’ve seen all season.

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At Kingsholm – it was about who could execute a killer blow amongst a flurry of attacking intent. At Sandy Park – it was who would land the final haymaker in a war of attrition. Three tries apiece, three changes of lead, and three yellow cards: it was an enthralling saga – played out before over four thousand gloriously vocal fans.

This was a rematch of last year’s final and felt like it: no love was lost in Devon that afternoon, and Appleby’s side will be relieved they have a full two weeks to recover before their latest shot at Premier 15s glory.

Saturday had us on the edges of our seats, and Sunday huddled back on our sofas – peeping through cracked fingers – but both provided some unforgettable moments.

It was a delight meeting Mothers Learned and Delgado pre-match in Gloucester: both had travelled to the UK to watch their daughters, and their pride was palpable. They weren’t the only special visitors: Ed Slater was watching on, as was Gloucester skipper Lewis Ludlow, whose gorgeous daughter Autumn ran out with Mo Hunt before a red sea of noise.

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The air was thick with excitement, as it was down at Sandy Park – where fans had congregated more than three hours before kick-off. The locals had brought drums to pound and Santa hats to sport (it’s a Hope Rogers thing), whilst the wolf pack’s faithful brandished flags, fez caps, and a ‘someone’s got to win an away semi-final at some stage’ mentality.

At Kingsholm, it was Sarah Beckett who scored the opener – of course it was – and her interplay down the left wing with prodigious Hartpury flyer Mia Venner was wickedly slick. It was the visitors who flew from the blocks in Devon, with Sarah McKenna reaffirming her class at inside centre, and Holly Aitchison edging the battle of the fly halves. Both seemed to have the ball on a string at points, as did a few of Saturday’s kickers.

Emma Sing and El Snowsill banged over conversions with ease, but the pick of the nudges came from Amber Reed in the second half. It was so casually executed that I initially (and foolishly) described it as ‘speculative’. Katy Daley-Mclean, oozing insight and humour all game long, corrected me: it was ‘genius’.

Phoebe Murray latched onto its impeccable bounce, and Bristol were only denied by a scrambling swarm of cherry and white jerseys. Speaking of last-ditch defence, I want Lucy Burgess’ try-saver on Hunt immortalised in statue form, or – at the very least – on a T-shirt. It was magnificent.

At the other end of the glamour spectrum, but no less instrumental, was the ability of all four semi-finalists to withstand batterings on their own try lines. Some of the phase counts were higher than the temperatures, and the old adage suddenly made sense – ‘attack wins matches, but defence wins championships.’

Attack really does win matches, you know: Chiefs’ second half was something to behold. It was an eventful interval for a variety of reasons, but the most significant thing to come from it was whatever Appleby said to her side.

They emerged a different beast, and you’ve wasted your week so far if you’ve not spent it watching replays of Katie Buchanan and Hope Rogers each briefly seizing control of rugby’s Elder Wand, and proving – quite simply – unplayable by mere mortals.

A word for Liv McGoverne too, who’d had a tough afternoon at the line and kicking from hand, but nailed everything asked of her from the tee – which would prove critical. The last words went to stalwarts of the victorious outfits – Rachel Lund and Eilidh Sinclair were thoroughly deserving of their result-clinching moments – and the recipients of ‘Player of the Match’ awards… Well.

If you’d had to guess which of the 46 players at Kingsholm was recovering from a dead leg – the 46th name you’d have said would have been Alex Matthews’: hers was a performance of both relentless brilliance and brilliant relentlessness. As for Hope Rogers – you suspect she’s receiving her Freedom of the City of Exeter any day now. By her lofty standards, it was a quiet first forty.

The second? Deafening. Irresistible. Instantly iconic. She came, she saw, she Rogered – and then took the time to give us a considered and passionate interview in studio, before taking the show off air with an uncontainable ‘whoop!’

Her jubilation felt about right. We had four worthy semi-finalists: the best quartet from a league teeming with talent, and which has delivered throughout. This, though, feels the perfect match-up for June 24th’s big one. First versus second. A West Country derby.

The meeting of two stacked squads, brilliantly coached, who’ve shared the spoils this year – but who’ve not yet met at full strength. There’s an asterisk besides both that Round One and that Round Eighteen result: this is a slightly unknown entity, which fits with the theme of novelty permeating the whole thing.

A first full-throttle clash of these two, in a fresh final head-to-head (including a debutant), and the guarantee that, in a week and a half, we’ll have a shiny new name on that trophy. It’s barbecue season, and the Premier 15s is absolutely sizzling.

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