England’s leading club women’s competition, the Allianz Premier 15s, kicks off at midday on Saturday with a west country encounter between Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs. There is a high level of expectation with many of the players hoping in 12 months’ time to be flying off to New Zealand for the World Cup and fans back in grounds closed to them during the pandemic.
There have been some intriguing transfers in the summer, too, but arguably the most significant move in the competition this weekend will be off the pitch. In line with the men’s game, HIAs, head injury assessments with any players suspected of suffering concussion leaving the field to be examined by a doctor, will be used for the first time in the Allianz 15s. With this week’s publication by the University of South Wales into damage to the brain caused by collisions in professional rugby, the decision to monitor women is a welcome one.
Conor O’Shea, the RFU performance director, said: “This is the biggest priority in bringing the women’s game in line with the men’s game. We have a duty of care to everyone who plays the game. Since the men’s game became more professional we have learned a lot of lessons and with the growth of the sport comes more challenges and more scrutiny. In England we’re ahead of the game when it comes to professionalism but there’s a long way to go.”
Most of the women kicking off a fortnight before the start of the men’s Premiership are, of course, still amateurs with Harlequins and Saracens in the vanguard of the domestic game since the competition’s inception four years ago. Quins beat their big rivals 25-17 in a dramatic final in Gloucester last spring and both will be hard to beat again. The biggest challenges may come from Loughborough Lightning, the university-based side who include two of England’s biggest stars, Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt. Loughborough kick off their campaign on Sunday with a visit to champions Harlequins.
Elsewhere, Bristol Bears are expected to make big strides under their new head coach Dave Ward. Ward, a former stalwart forward who made his name at Harlequins, turned to Quins for his biggest signing of the summer. It probably didn’t need too much persuading to convince the England lock, formerly known as Abbie Scott to head west. Ward and Scott, now Abbie Ward, married in the summer of 2020.
“It’s going to be a massive season for us,” said Dave Ward. “Standards are rising in this league all the time and if there’s one thing I’ve learned since taking over here it’s that there’s nothing in the game that the women can’t do as well as the men. The semi-finals and final last season were some of the best games I’ve ever seen. This will be the most competitive season ever in the women’s game.”
“As a new coach I’m much more nervous than I ever was as a player. I’ll be like a duck on water this weekend, serene on the face of things but kicking furiously out of sight.” Abbie Ward will pack down against the Chiefs but Ward will be without his injured England scrum Leanne Riley this weekend.
Elsewhere Katy Daley-McLean, who retired from playing last winter, takes up her new role as a coach at Sale Sharks. England’s most-capped fly-half expects to play in the early games until some of a dozen new signings arrive or bed in. The Sharks’ new signings include three Americans while Daley-McLean has high hopes of her young No 10 Lizzie Duffy, a former rugby league player.
Worcester Warriors, meanwhile, have looked to Japan for their new fly-half. Minori Yamamoto has joined the club from Nippon Sport Science.
Another big summer move sees England prop Bryony Cleall leave Saracens for Wasps. She will have an early chance to face her sister, Red Roses No 8 Poppy Cleall, when the clubs meet at Twyford Avenue.