The two best women’s teams in England go head-to-head at Franklin’s Gardens to decide the champions – here’s what you need to know
Tyrrells Premier 15s Final Preview Harlequins v Saracens
Here we go again. The second Tyrrells Premier 15s final will feature the same clubs as the first, with defending champions Saracens taking on Harlequins. Yet for all that’s the same, it’s also different as so much has changed during the 12 months that have passed since that trophy was lifted.
For a start, this year’s final will take place at a far bigger venue – Ealing Trailfinders’ ground swapped for Franklin’s Gardens, the home of Northampton Saints. Tickets for the final – £10 for adults and free for U16s – are still available here.
Then there are the professional contracts. A dozen of the 28 England players handed full-time contracts by the RFU in January don the shirts of either Harlequins or Saracens.
A little over a month ago those players were joining forces to help England lift a Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam. On Saturday evening they will be on opposing sides in the race to be crowned English champions.
There are a few new faces too. Scotland No 8 Jade Konkel joined Harlequins from Lille last summer and was Player of the Match in their semi-final victory over Loughborough Lightning, who reached the last four for the first time after an impressive season.
Saracens have had a change coach with Alex Austerberry replacing Rob Cain, who left to take the USA Women’s job.
And there have been returnees from sevens. Wing Jess Breach came back to Quins at the turn of the year having switched to the sevens programme midway through last season.
Sarah McKenna and Vicky Fleetwood also rejoined Saracens at the start of the season after spells with England Sevens.
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In the midst of all the change, Lotte Clapp has remained a constant for Saracens, starting all 40 of their Premier 15s games over the past two seasons.
The wing cannot wait for another chance to lift the trophy. She says: “I always have in my head that image of me lifting the trophy with all my team-mates around, it was an amazing feeling and something you wish to have over and over again.
“At the same time you’ve got to not get overwhelmed by that and say it’s a new year and a new final where anything can happen.”
Saracens, who beat Wasps 31-13 in their semi-final, were 31-28 victors in their home league match against Quins, but Quins triumphed 20-17 when they hosted Sarries – the only league loss the defending champions suffered all season. Three-point margins in both matches suggest another tight affair in the final.
Experienced England centre Rachael Burford will lead Quins at Franklin’s Gardens and is driven by the disappointment of the 24-20 final defeat in 2018.
“It would mean everything,” says Burford. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work, there’s heartache from last year and a couple of times this season, so for us to be able to go and win would be brilliant.
“It is in our hands, we’ve got an opportunity and I’m really confident that our team will rise to that challenge.”
There should be plenty of interesting subplots across the field too. At fly-half are two youngsters – Zoe Harrison and Ellie Green – who are both in the running to be Katy Daley-Mclean’s long-term successor as England No 10. At scrum time, England props Hannah Botterman and Vickii Cornborough will battle it out.
Both teams are missing big names up front – Marlie Packer (Saracens) and Shaunagh Brown (Quins) are out injured – but a physical contest can still be expected as these sides are effective in the set-piece and have powerful ball-carriers.
The pro contracts for the England internationals has no doubt helped those players concentrate on improving their fitness and skill levels, yet Wasps Ladies director of rugby Giselle Mather believes the investment in the Premier 15s has benefited all the players involved.
With money for coaching, strength and conditioning support, medical staff and so on, even those players with full-time jobs have seen notable improvements.
“Before this period of finance, we had committed athletes but with no direction or understanding of what they should be doing,” says Mather. “Now the investment has come in we’re seeing the potential within come flooding out.”
While it would be great to think that in the future the whole league could be professional, the England contracts and off-field support are a good – and more sustainable – start.
Now attentions turn to the final to see whether Harlequins or Saracens will lift the Premier 15s trophy in 2019. Will it be the same, or different?
Harlequins v Saracens, Saturday 27 April, 5.45pm, Franklin’s Gardens, Live on Sky Sports Mix
HARLEQUINS: Emily Scott; Heather Cowell, Khadidja Camara, Rachael Burford (captain), Jess Breach; Ellie Green, Leanne Riley; Vickii Cornborough, Davinia Catlin, Chloe Edwards, Abbie Scott, Chloe Butler, Fiona Fletcher, Kristine Sommer, Jade Konkel.
Replacements: Leah Lyons, Tove Viksten, Deborah McCormack, Zoe Saynor, Lucy Packer, Holly Myers, Bethany Wilcock.
SARACENS: Sarah McKenna; Sydney Gregson, Hannah Casey, Lauren Cattell, Lotte Clapp (captain); Zoe Harrison, Georgie Gulliver; El Perry, May Campbell, Hannah Botterman, Sonia Green, Rosie Galligan, Jodie Rettie, Lauren Newman, Poppy Cleall.
Replacements: Hannah Duffy, Jeani Layola, Kay Searcy, Sarah Bebbington, Emma Swords, Nina Vistisen, Chantelle Miell
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