A Twixmassy look around the PWR: New Kids, Mercurial Meg and Big Game
‘The Festive Gap.’ ‘Crimbo Limbo.’ ‘Twixmas.’ Whatever you call this period between Christmas and New Year, it’s an eerie one, when things go walkies. You lose track of what day of the week it is, you lose any sense of whether or not it’s acceptable to start the day with a slab of Stilton, and you lose count of the hours of festive telly you’ve – fleece-clad and chain-drinking tea – consumed.
Bizarrely, given how disorientated by overindulgence and dizzied by social saturation we are, we decide this is the perfect time to start assessing the year just gone – and scheming and dreaming for the year ahead. There’s simply no way this is the right point in the calendar for setting resolutions, and yet we do it annually.
At the end of the year, with reflection in mind, six rounds (almost) complete, and a whole chocolate reindeer as column-writing fuel – here’s what stands out, upon a gaze around Premiership Women’s Rugby.
January is all about the Wolfpack: Dry January? So 2023. This season, Saracens are taking part in Do-or-Die January* – as they visit Sale Sharks before pair of mouthwatering heavyweight clashes: Exeter’s trip to Fortress StoneX in a repeat of last year’s semi-final for the ages, and then their journey to the home of the champions.
*this is a touch melodramatic – Saracens could have a terrible January and still win the league – but it is probably their most important run of fixtures…
Gloucester-Hartpury lost just one proper ding dong last season (they named a much-altered team in their final round meeting with Chiefs, so that doesn’t really count), and that was in this exact fixture – when 23 livid Women in Black scorched their way to a stunning victory in the West Country.
The message coming out of the top teams’ camps this year is that it’s all about securing a home semi-final. No away side has ever booked their ticket to the showpiece event, so the overarching message for the next few months is: finish top two.
That ‘5-0’ table result is the gold standard: score four tries, defend ferociously, and keep that winning margin to eight or more. Having done exactly that against Bears at the weekend, a successful January for Sarries could see the three-time champions in prime position, come the business end of the campaign.
New kids settling in just fine: Trailfinders are perched right in the middle of the table – rubbing shoulders with the title holders and a star-studded Lightning. The losing bonus point against Harlequins, thumping win over fellow newbies Leicester, and ability to close out a scrappy wrestle with Sale will all have given Giselle Mather’s charges real confidence – and they’ll only improve with cohesion-hewing time together.
They’ve a stinky combination of games coming up – Chiefs, Cherries, and Sarries in the space of four weeks – but they’ll be gunning for Loughborough on January 20th, and it really is quite the squad they’ve gathered in West London…
Tigers haven’t won a game, granted, but they’re giving sides a real crack – just look at how many they stuck on Chiefs in their opener, or how hard they made Saracens work for 40 minutes – and are building nicely, considering they’re just five outings into their debut season.
Amy Cokayne’s return will be a considerable boost, as will the support they’ll receive on January 6th – when they’re on after the men at Welford Road in a tantalising double-header. The club’s heaped resources into the programme, and sold over 4,500 women’s season tickets already – enough of a roar to make a real difference up against a struggling Quins.
Warriors continuing to make waves: You can’t watch a game this season without being reminded of the heartbreaking demise of Worcester Warriors, which is bittersweet. Their collapse remains awful, but the reason their absence is felt so keenly and we continue to discuss them is because their former players are pulling up trees – which is testament to Jo Yapp and that entire club’s excellence.
Paige Farries, Meg Varley, Evie Gallagher, Lana Skeldon, Vicky Laflin, and Akina Gondwe are just a handful of those who’ve settled straight into new surroundings and set-ups, and immediately reaffirmed their quality.
Mercurial Meg: The swashbuckling sevens supremo is back playing 15s, and has made the switch look laughably straightforward. Five played, two tries, seven conversions, and a penalty – Vicky Macqueen’s utilising her in the centres, but her influence is multifaceted.
She’s evasive – right up there for defenders beaten and tackles scampered through – but also gets through a pile of work, ball in hand. She hits more defensive rucks than any other Tiger, and steals the most ball too – whilst not missing a minute.
Those are the numerical bits – the things Opta put in tables and graphs each week for commentators to get excited about – but they don’t cover the intangibles. Jones is a charismatic firecracker and emotional heartbeat, who drives standards whilst also making things *fun* – which is just what a team as both new and young as Tigers needs.
Oh – and she’s also a riot to watch. When Meg Jones gets the ball, you simultaneously elbow the person alongside you to make sure they’re paying attention, and sit forward in your seat – entranced.
She’s like a game of Bop It (if they re-released the console with a broad Cardiff accent) – with a genuinely world-class box of tricks at her disposal. Will she twist, spin, flick, lash, or leg it? Only she knows, and we’re the lucky ones watching on. She was a statement and definitive signing by Leicester, and it’s so good to have her back.
Fly half heaven: Holly Aitchison. Lleucu George. Beatrice Rigoni. Amelia MacDougall. Zoe Harrison. Bella McKenzie. Alex Tessier. Helen Nelson. Just eight of the amazing tens pulling strings and orchestrating moments of magic around the league. We’re spoilt for choice this year – we really are.
We might well have our semi-finalists already: There are plot twists coming – of course there are – but it’s hard to imagine playoffs which don’t feature the quartet who reached the semi-finals last year. The intrigue is all in the placings. Who will secure those all-important home fixtures? And who will they be hosting?
Who will finish best of the rest? The scrap for fifth is going to be ferocious, and there are some delightful sub-plots to enjoy. When will Tigers claim their first scalp? Just how much can Trailfinders go on to gel over 16 matches? Can Harlequins find some form, and avoid their lowest-ever finish? Will Lightning finally fulfil their inarguable potential? And which other big names will Sharks send packing from Heywood Road?
Things feel a bit polarised this season – four superpowers and the five thrashing it out beneath them – but it’ll be fascinating to see where they all finish up.
No substitute for a world-class campaigner: Late review alert: it’s awesome to have bright young things twinkling across your squad, but you really do need to lock in a few experienced campaigners.
Just look at Saturday’s Christmas Cracker in North London, when Poppy Cleall’s defensive work in the second quarter changed the entire complexion of the game, and Marlie Packer’s tries were – respectively – a huge momentum swing and then the nail in Bristol’s coffin.
Speaking of Bears – their best player was Abbie Ward – and I don’t just mean the audacious, LeBron-esque intercept and canter clear. She brought smarts, physicality, and accuracy to an outfit needing just those qualities, and the impact of her return this season can’t be overstated.
Similarly, Player of the Match was the barnstorming Sophie De Goede, who might be just 24 but has been playing international rugby since about the mid-50s, and again emphasised just how critical it is to have those ‘big name, big game’ athletes. Around them – your nippers and tyros can thrive – but these mainstays are the world-class scaffolding from which champion sides are constructed.
One final Big Game to see out 2023: This weekend? The TNT cameras and – hopefully – a world record crowd are off to Twickenham, as Quins bid to derail an unbeaten Gloucester-Hartpury, Joel Corry takes to the decks, and Marcus Smith produces the usual pyrotechnics.
The jet-setting DJ’s all well and good, but the international sensations I’m personally heading over there for are Sarah Bonar, Aseze Hele, and Sarah Beckett – who bring plenty of bass, and dish out hit after hit, of their own.
The Circus, as the nickname suggests, love a big stage – so will thrive before the 20,000 Harlequins are expecting for the women’s game. If the champions hit their straps, and the hosts don’t find something, it could be a long day for Amy Turner’s squad – but some of the talents on show, on both sides, are world-beaters.
That’s more than enough reflecting for one day – plus I’ve finished my chocolate reindeer – so let’s leave it at that, and return to the Twixmas chatter and our national annual obsession with the darts at Ally Pally.
It’s been a fabulous 2023 in all sorts of ways for this league, so – resolution wise – let’s go back (and I really did not see this coming) to Bop It.
In 2024, PWR: ‘do it the same, but better.’
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