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Two rounds down, and plenty to go: Some early season lukewarm takes on PWR

By Claire Thomas
SALE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Katana Howard and Rachael Woosey of Sale Sharks celebrate victory at the finale whistle during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby match between Sale Sharks and Harlequins at Heywood Road on November 25, 2023 in Sale, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Sale Sharks)

One of the many* problems with the internet is that things live forever on there. Sometimes, that’s brilliant: we can fall through the web into niche and nostalgic holes, moments they’ll go on to teach in history classes are preserved immaculately, Wikipedia has helped thousands of arts graduates to degrees (anyone who claims they didn’t use it weekly during their studies is a liar), and it’s five seconds’ work for me to proudly produce evidence that I did actually make a full body papier-mâché olive costume once – so I could go as Georgia Nicholson for Halloween.

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*many, many, many, many

Sometimes, though, the way our actions, context, and opinions are frozen in time – hung suspended in Chrome amber for archaeologists to discover millennia later, is a right nuisance – and I hope this column doesn’t prove one of those.

We’ve scarcely got going with this new Premiership Women’s Rugby campaign – if the season were a sprinter, it’d only just have reached its transition phase – but let’s hurl some opinions and predictions out into the World Wide Web, and see what sticks.

Harrison 2.0 might be the best version yet

Catching up with Zoe Harrison at the PWR launch was a joy. She was a combination of her usual competitive ferocity – the trophy belongs in North London, apparently, and Saracens *will* be collecting it at the end of the season, thank you very much – and a compelling, laidback confidence.

You’d have thought there’d be some pre-opener jitters – returning from an ACL reconstruction with form, a title, and an England fly-half jersey to reclaim – but she was just so relaxed. As tough as the injury and rehabilitation had been, and she spoke with such candour about the arduous process itself, she seemed to genuinely believe in its silver linings.

Harrison’s been a star and stalwart since she was a teenager, cruising from trophy wins with Sarries to those with the Red Roses and back again with just the swish of a trademark and immaculate ponytail, but being in such demand has kept her fiendishly busy. Enforced time out has allowed her to invest in herself in unprecedented ways – and she reckons she’s more powerful, dynamic, agile, and robust than ever before.

Saturday, her first Premiership start since the injury, suggested she’s right: a try and quintet of conversions on the scoresheet, and numerous key involvements – including a peach of a cross-field kick to Sydney Gregson.

She’s on a mouth-watering collision course with Holly Aitchison – who she’ll meet on December 23rd, when the Wolfpack and Bears serve up a Christmas cracker – which becomes the 2023 Red Roses Number Ten Derby. Only one of them can start at fly-half against Italy on March 24th…

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As for the trophy, Saracens are back in their customary seat at the top of the table, and – with a better-than-ever Harrison pulling the strings and a Canadian cheat code in their locker, they’re looking ominous.

Sale are building

This column gave Sale a proper tub thump ahead of the opening round, and they hardly fired a shot against Bristol. Case in point: predictions are a risky business. It wasn’t the start to the campaign they’d trained or hoped for – Rachel Taylor was clear about that – but they chalked it off as a Mulligan, returned North to put things right, and promptly made history against Harlequins.

It sounded like a doozy of a game – a swinging pendulum of momentum cleaving bitterly cold air throughout – and that makes it all the more impressive, because Sale truly believe now that they’ve the beating of top teams. Lest we forget, Harlequins were champions, this time two years ago. Northern grit + Torpedo Talling + a pinpoint Vicky A Irwin + a twist of Italian flair = a force to be reckoned with.

Sharks are circling, and Sale is a tougher place to go than ever before. They might well find Chiefs a bit much to handle this weekend, but their ascent is inarguable – and the scalps they’re taking get more notable each year.

Chiefs haven’t batted an eyelid

As we watched Captain Fantastic and US Eagle Kate Zackary soar off to Trailfinders, Flo Robinson fizz her way to The Stoop alongside Abbie Fleming, and Charli Jacoby head onto pastures new – we wondered if the two-time finalists might skip a beat as the season got underway.

We were wrong. Rob Baxter’s young guns are currently sat second in the Gallagher Premiership, despite losing so many classy players over the summer that those in possession of ‘Exeter Leavers 2023’ hoodies could form a seriously good team in their own right, and Susie Appleby’s squad have proven similarly unwavering.

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40 stuck on Tigers in their opener, and then a bonus point victory this weekend against a star-studded Bristol. Just look at the try scorers: Emily Tuttosi, Rachel Johnson, and Claudia MacDonald. The second most prolific whitewash magnet at the World Cup, a beaming agent of chaos with a seemingly unemptiable tank, and someone who steps so hard and hurtles so fast I’ve pulled eyeballs watching her.

People have started referring to Chiefs as the ‘bridesmaids’ of this competition, but they’re gunning for a medal upgrade – and you’re braver than me if you fancy taking them on when it’s time to throw the bouquet.

The champs are back

Gloucester-Hartpury are up and running, Mia Venner was just as prolific as Sean Lynn told us she would be, Emma Sing was lashing conversions over from right across Kingsholm, the bonus point was in the cherry and white bag within 16 minutes, and the champions didn’t concede a point until the 72nd. Plus ça change.

Next up? A Friday night trip to Bear Country. That’ll be good.

Newbies are warming to task nicely

Both Trailfinders and Tigers are awaiting a first victory, but each have a point in the standings (Giselle Mather’s women only missed out to Harlequins by five points, and Vicky Macqueen’s squad managed a try bonus against Chiefs), and look right at home at the domestic game’s top table. They’re proving reliant on their marquee signings – Meg Jones has contributed 21 of Leicester’s 41 points so far, and half of Trailfinders’ tries have come from Abby Dow – but that’s to be expected, and they’re already proving stiffer opposition than DMP or Wasps were able to last year.

Tigers are hosting Loughborough on Sunday, in the first East Midlands Derby this league’s seen. Let’s hope it develops into the sort of full-throttle, historic rivalry we see in the men’s game, and provides the rugby to match. Whatever happens, Jones up against Helena Rowland is a sumptuous prospect – promising mercurial, midfield magic.

Whilst we’re committing predictions to paper: Tigers could win this…. Loughborough don’t travel well, and continually fluffed their lines in the red zone against Saracens in their opener – whilst any side who can breach Chiefs’ defence on four occasions has got something right in attack.

Trailfinders have a bye this week, so some time to reflect, assess, and progress before these two debutants clash in round four. If you’re London-based: get down there. December 9th. 3pm. A historic occasion; the likes of Dow, Jones, Eva Donaldson, Fran McGhie, and Zackary; two powerhouse coaches; and a fixture they’ll both have targeted since the schedule was released.

There you have it: a thousand tremulous, Trelawney-esque words based on a mere 640 minutes of rugby.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet about the 2023/24 Premiership Women’s Rugby season – and thank goodness, because sport would be terribly boring if we got spoilers in round two – but there are some things we’re gleaning already. I’m fairly happy with the above living on forever in the RugbyPass archives.

I’ll gladly leave those hot takes cooling on the drying rack whilst I go about my business. Harrison’s flying, Sale are circling, Chiefs are unfazed, and the champs look like – well – champs. Let’s see how these have aged by the Six Nations, shall we?

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1 Comment
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Antony 200 days ago

Some fabulous descriptions - gives me a good fix of excitement between matches…

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Flankly 13 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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FEATURE Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks
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