And absent friends for new season
Women’s club rugby has a broadcasting deal and two new teams in the top league, but problems still lurk
The rebranding of the Premier 15s, now named Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR), marks a new era for the women’s domestic game in England, which begins today. Not only is there a new name but there are two new teams and a new broadcasting deal to boot. However, there are some clouds on the horizon. Worcester men went into administration in September 2022 but the women’s team continued with separate funding saving the side from collapse. The club were also confirmed as part of the 2023-24 women’s Premiership season, much to the delight of the supporters, but the rug was soon yanked from under their feet. On 17 October it emerged the club owners, Cube International, were withdrawing the team from all competitions. The head coach, Jo Yapp, took to social media to share the heartbreak of staff and players. “We felt we were on the verge of a long and successful journey together. To have it ended so abruptly is hard to take,” she wrote. The league has been left with nine clubs for this season meaning one per round will have a rest week. Whether the league will be increased to 10 teams once again in the 2024-25 season is a decision that has not yet been taken by league organisers. Two other club names are missing from the fixture list. Before the PWR season the Rugby Football Union went through a retendering process in the top flight, where clubs put in bids to be a part of the league as relegation and promotion does not currently exist. DMP Sharks, part of the Premier 15s since its foundation in 2017, chose not to tender a bid and so were not offered a place. The northern club instead decided to compete in the Championship One North but, sadly, have since withdrawn because of a lack of available players and are targeting the 2024-25 season to re-enter competition. Wasps, who have been a part of the women’s top flight for 38 years, did put in a bid to be a part of PWR but were not given a place because other clubs better met the criteria set out by the RFU. The side have since ceased to exist in a professional capacity. All is not lost in the domestic game, though, with competition in the league last season the best and closest it has ever been. Attendances for games in the regular season and the final broke records. While two clubs lost their seat at the top table in the retendering process, two new clubs have entered: Leicester and Ealing Trailfinders. They have been tasked with building a team ready for the Premiership and the sides have put together impressive squads, attracting international talent from other English teams but also drawing stars away from other leagues. Canada’s Tyson Beukeboom has signed for Ealing from Cowichan and the Scotland wing Francesca Mcghie has joined Leicester from Watsonians. As well as two new clubs, PWR is part of a 10-year strategy for women’s rugby in England with sustainability at its heart. “Our ambition is to transform the league into the world’s most competitive, progressive, and sustainable domestic rugby competition,” the PWR chief executive, Belinda Moore, says. “Elite women’s rugby in England has never been in a stronger place.” PWR has already taken steps to implement progress with a new broadcast deal with TNT Sports, one match per round will be shown as well as both semi-finals and the final. There is also a new defending champion as Gloucester-hartpury lifted the Premier 15s trophy for the first time last season, beating Exeter in the final. The Gloucester prop Sisilia Tuipulotu describes the trophy win as “the best feeling in the world” and it is fuelling motivation for this campaign. Gloucester-hartpury’s title defence will not start this weekend as they were due to play Worcester in the opening round and so their first game of the season will be against Leicester on 25 November as part of a double header with the men’s team at Kingsholm. Gloucester-hartpury’s local rivals Bristol will host the opening game of the season against Sale at Ashton Gate, which will be televised on TNT Sports, and there is exciting team news for the home side as the England international Abbie Ward is involved in the matchday squad. Ward has not played since the World Cup final last November because she had her first child, Hallie, with husband and Bristol head coach, Dave Ward. Now – just 17 weeks after giving birth – the co-captain and secondrow will start the game today.