Women’s top-flight at a crossroads as investment into Premier 15s sparks fresh scrutiny

·4-min read
Women’s top-flight at a crossroads as investment into Premier 15s sparks fresh scrutiny - UK SPORTS PICS
Women’s top-flight at a crossroads as investment into Premier 15s sparks fresh scrutiny - UK SPORTS PICS

Saracens 32 Exeter 19

“I just remember it was on a muddy pitch with one little stand, with probably one person watching.”

Those are Sonia Green’s hazy recollections of the first time she ran out in a Saracens shirt, having become the first Premier 15s player to reach the remarkable milestone of 300 appearances for the London club in her side’s 32-19 victory over Exeter on Sunday.

Witnessing that slice of history was Nigel Wray, the former Saracens chairman who, despite recently selling his majority £32m stake in the club’s takeover deal, clearly wasn’t going to miss this special moment for such a talismanic figure. Green will be back at work on Monday morning as the vice-principal for Saracens High School in Edgware, clearly one who is very much part of the club's fabric.

It was an occasion made all the more sweeter by her side’s comfortable win over Chiefs to seal their fifth consecutive bonus point in as many matches and head into the autumn international break at the top of the Premier 15s table, level on points with high-flying Bristol.

Having arrived at Saracens in the early days of men’s professionalism, it seemed fitting that Wray was watching two teams embarking on that same journey towards full-time rugby, along with his daughter, Lucy Mercey, the Saracens chief executive.

For Green, a former England international who last featured for her country in 2013 and was never paid a penny to play, it has been a prosperous chapter. “We’ve always lived the values at Saracens - I said that to Nigel Wray a couple of years ago,” said Green. “We’ve always been professional with a small ‘p’. Even though we were never getting paid, it’s always been very professional, and that’s why I stayed at the club. Forget rugby, women’s sport has changed so much.”

And more change could be in the air. With London Irish, Ealing Trailfinders and Leicester Tigers all this year announcing their intentions to bid for Premier 15s status in two years’ time, investing in a women’s and girls’ programme has suddenly become extremely à la mode, amid rumours that Premiership Rugby has expressed an interest in taking over the Premier 15s with a view of fully commercialising the competition.

A more forensic look of the current league table shows a fistful of clubs near the top clearly benefiting from financial muscle provided by a men’s Premiership side. Even Wasps Women swapped their Twyford Avenue ground for the Coventry Building Society Arena this weekend and are now basing themselves in the midlands one day a week, while Leicester staged a historic women’s fixture at Welford Road last Saturday.

Northampton, too, have also attempted to jump on the bandwagon, having last month announced a somewhat vague partnership with Loughborough Lightning. Bizarrely, the Premier 15s outfit is set to gain “minimal” financial support from the deal, which is understood to have been orchestrated by John Steele, Loughborough University’s executive director of sport whose tenure as CEO of the Rugby Football Union in 2010 lasted nine months.

It lends itself to a much bigger question - with the demotion of historic women’s clubs like Richmond and Firwood Waterloo - who were squeezed out of the Premier 15s two seasons ago because of a lack of finance, can those without investment from a big male ally thrive?

Alex Austerberry, the Saracens Women director of rugby, who has previously voiced support for perennial strugglers DMP Durham Sharks, genuinely believes it is possible, but only if clubs are equipped with the right resources and league model in which to operate. “Some important discussions are taking place with the clubs, with the Rugby Football Union about what the future looks like,” Austerberry told Telegraph Sport. “I think it’s important that all programmes, shapes and sizes are taken into account.”

Five rounds into the 2021-22 season, and there is the sense that the women’s top-flight finds itself at a crossroads.

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