Yesterday saw the last game of women’s Premiership rugby with Aylesford Bulls/Harlequins winning the last premiership title following on from their cup win.
Next year sees the formation of the “Super Rugby” tournament which is set to replace it and if anyone wants to have a hope of competing with what will then be “Harlequins” they are going to need to read the warnings from history. This is the same moment for the women’s game that the men’s game went through in the 90’s with the beginning of professionalism and the result for some of the biggest clubs in the game at the time was to disappear into the national leagues many never to be seen in the topflight again.
This was the rise of a new Rugby dynasty. I think they will admit they have achieved more this year than they possibly anticipated but they now have a head start over all the rivals. While other more established teams have for many years talked about the importance of the women’s game. Harlequins have gone out and actively inserted themselves into it. They have invested in a vastly experienced coach in world cup winning Gary Street and former Richmond coach Karen Findlay and alongside them they have built a professional backroom staff.
This is what the future of women’s rugby needs to look like if it is to move forward. It will benefit the standard of the game, the marketability and most importantly the women themselves. It is easy to criticize Harlequins, they have had a women’s team by name only for 20 years. They never really showed any interest in. Yet now they have a seat at the top table and in their first season have lifted the Premiership trophy. I can’t speculate as to where this change of heart came from but as someone who has pushed for investment in the women’s game and who has argued that if you want success you have to develop the top flight domestic teams, it would be wrong of me to find fault in it.
There is a very over used saying that you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs well Aylesford or Harlequins as they will be known next year have made a beautiful omelette but on the way, they have smashed eggs and a couple of other people kitchens on route and nobbled the chefs.
The team is also vastly experienced with at least 12 of the squad who lifted the trophy this year. Were also in the Richmond team that won the tournament last year. All the tight five either started or were on the bench for both teams. As were the 9 and 10. In fact from the squad that won the Premiership title I’m not sure there was more than 3 players who were in the Aylesford team that defended the 7/8th place play off with wasps which they lost 37-0 last season to finish bottom.
Harlequins played a very smart game yesterday. I have loved watching Bristol this year, they played abrasive tough brand of rugby and have been rampant all season. They were without key players who have given them so much go forward, Sarah Hunter, Poppy Cleall and Marlie Packer. Sarah Bern did her best to get them on the front foot but the defence of Harlequins was relentless. With Amy Turner at 10 and Racheal Burford at 12 they had a midfield capable of putting players away and stopping big runners. Towards the end, Bristol looked lost they had thrown all they had at the Quins defence but it stood up to it all. It had the feel of a boxing match in which a big heavy punching fighter searching for the knock out blow, had been jabbed into submission by fast moving, smart boxer.
So where does this leave us? I think in the long term there is a lot to thank Harlequins for, they have delivered change. They have now set a bench mark and hopefully the benefits will be seen with many other clubs following suit. If they don’t want to fall behind they too must move forward. As for the “Super Rugby” competition I would have made it 12 teams and allowed for natural wastage because I am certain with some of the teams that are coming up into the top flight, 2 years down the line some of them are simply going to want to wave the white flag and walk away. If they make it to 2 years which I am not certain they all will.
As it stands well done Aylesford Bulls and good Luck Harlequins a new dawn awaits.