Back in June, Sport Shorts considered the premature conclusion of the Premier 15s season, which was rendered null and void as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Following a near seven month period without any rugby for the elite of the women’s game, the newly branded 2020/21 Allianz Premier 15s campaign got underway on 10 October. The season launched with relatively little fanfare, being played behind closed doors and with no broadcast deals secured. The first of the planned 18 rounds did not prove uneventful, however. The two new women’s teams, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks, admitted to the competition following the league’s audit and (re)tender process, had a slow start to life at the top of English women’s rugby with 34-14 and 29-7 defeats to Gloucester-Hartpury and Loughborough Lightning respectively. Elsewhere, Harlequins look set to be a force to be reckoned with this season after a host of experienced internationals re-committed to the club and the impressive side chalked up 103 unanswered points against DMP Durham Sharks.
A first round Covid-19 Postponement
The new RFU Regulation 22 (Covid-19 Variations) perhaps came into play sooner than expected as the first round match between Bristol Bears Women and Wasps FC Ladies was postponed following a Bristol player testing positive for coronavirus. A total of 19 players and 2 members of staff were forced into isolation. Regulation 22 is currently only applicable to the Premier 15s competition and provides a framework for dealing with issues such as postponements and non-fulfillment of fixtures due to Covid-19.
Regulation 22.4.2 details that the relevant Organising Committee has the power to determine whether a match in such circumstances should “proceed, be reversed, rearranged, replayed or cancelled”. In the case of Bristol Bears Women v Wasps FC Ladies, the RFU has confirmed that the ‘Professional Competition Disputes Committee’ made the decision to rearrange the fixture, which will now take place on 31 October.
One interesting provision worth noting in Regulation 22 is in relation to Semi-Final and Final matches:
“Semi-Final Matches – In the event that a Club is unable to fulfil its fixture obligations due to Covid-19 related reasons, it shall be deemed to be at fault and the next highest ranked Club not already in a Semi-Final shall take its place in the Semi-Final Match.
The Final – In the event that a Club is unable to fulfil its fixture obligations due to Covid-19 related reasons, it shall be deemed to be at fault and the next highest ranked Club from either Semi-Final shall take its place in the Final Match.” (Regulation 22.8)
Clearly, given this unforgiving stance with regards to Semi-Final and Final matches, Premier 15s clubs will be hoping for no Covid-19 cases at that stage of the competition. However, despite the clubs’ best efforts, and depending on the state of the pandemic in Spring 2021, this is surely going to be a challenge and a lot will depend on chance. Many of the women playing at this level are not professionals and have other careers alongside their rugby commitments so the ability of the players to adhere to a testing regime or stay in a Covid-secure bubble would not be practical. It is for this very reason, and due to the prohibitive cost involved, that the Premier 15s is not running a testing programme at club level (instead, as we shall see below, certain Law changes have been introduced as a precaution).
It is notable that even in the men’s game, where there is regular testing, we have seen several sides affected by the virus. Not least Wasps, whose place in the 2019-20 Premiership Final, due to take place this weekend, is reportedly under threat due to a Covid outbreak in the Wasps’ camp. While the men’s Premiership Final might prove more difficult to postpone/ re-arrange as a result of broadcast deals and congested upcoming fixtures, one might hope there could be more flexibility if there is a similar issue for a Premier 15s club next May.
In addition to the new Regulation 22 referred to above, the Premier 15s is also operating under amended Laws of the Game.
According to the RFU, Law variations have been approved by World Rugby, the RFU Laws Sub Committee and the RFU Council and in consultation with Public Health England “to reduce in game face-to-face contact along with a range of medical and monitoring requirements to mitigate potential transmission risks and to allow competition to start without weekly testing.”
The varied Laws, which will be in force for the first 9 rounds before being reviewed ahead of the second half of the campaign, are as follows:
- A play advantage law from a knock-on
- Free kicks awarded to the opposition for a forward pass (rather than a scrum)
- Removal of the option for a scrum at a free kick or penalty
- A maul may only have one stop then the ball must be used
- No players who are not in the start of a lineout can join a maul
- It will only be possible to drive a lineout in the 22m
- Strict social distancing while ball is out of play including set water breaks, named bottles, limited face-to-face warm up
- Game time is reduced to 35 minutes each way
Notably, the varied Laws will reduce the number of scrums and the length, size and number of mauls. It will be interesting to see how these amendments affect the game as we know it. There may well be positives in that play will be faster, less stop-start and provide fewer opportunities for the dreaded reset scrum. However, to those in the front 5 at least, these may seem radical variations to the Laws, which impact negatively upon their roles in the team, perhaps even making some positions redundant. Many will want to see the changes reversed as soon as it is safe to do so.
With the continued disruption to both the men’s and women’s game below the top level it is not difficult to envisage that these Law variations might well be adopted more widely going forwards. If the Law variations prove a success in the opening rounds of the Premier 15s, perhaps the RFU will see an opportunity to get the community game going again.
Premier 15s lost its title partner Tyrrells when the snack brand did not renew its sponsorship of the league following the curtailment of the 2019-20 season. This left the RFU with the difficult task of finding a new partner for the league in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. The announcement of Allianz Insurance as the new title partner for the Premier 15s (alongside being the new Insurance Partner of England Rugby) has proved crucial for the RFU. It is well-documented that the governing body is struggling with serious financial difficulties as a result of Covid-19. Amongst whole-scale reductions, including many job cuts within the governing body, the RFU has cut funding to the Premier 15s by 25%. Clubs will now receive just £56,250 of funding per year from the governing body rather than £75,000.
In better news, it has been reported that the 28 full-time England women’s contracts will remain in place. The RFU also announced recently the renewal of its partnership with ball supplier Gilbert Rugby. As part of this, the brand will be the exclusive provider for the Premier 15s as well as England Women.
One item that has been firmly on the agenda for many involved in the Premier 15s is a push for games to be available for fans to watch, if not in a broadcast deal, at least via live streaming. Positive steps have been taken towards addressing this as last weekend’s second round match between Harlequins and Wasps was streamed live via the Allianz Premier 15s website and RFU social media channels. This coverage is no doubt important for the continued growth of the women’s game as a whole and the Premier 15s in particular. Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, when no spectators are allowed in grounds, greater visibility is needed so that fans, future players and potential commercial partners can engage with the sport and help it grow.