After going through the tender process to take part in the next cycle of the Allianz Premier 15s, Ealing Trailfinders and Leicester Tigers will take part in the league from 2023/24.
Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester-Hartpury, Harlequins, Saracens and Northampton Saints supported Loughborough Lightning have all retained their places, as Sale Sharks, Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, Worcester Warriors and Wasps are all left out.
Already this year has been significant in the development of the competition, the RFU announcing in June that they would be establishing an operating company for the league – Women’s Premier 15s Ltd - and up to £220m in investment to help establish the league as a professional competition over the next decade.
Both Ealing and Leicester continue the trend of Premier 15s clubs being attached to men’s professional sides. With Ealing, the men’s side are leading the race to enter the Gallagher Premeirship next season and are bankrolled by Sir Mike Gooley, who owns travel company Trailfinders, and could well have two top-flight teams in 2023.
Making waves in the summer with the appointment of Giselle Mather as Director of Women’s Rugby, Trailfinders have 45 players in their squad next season, while also investing more into their academy programme at Brunel University and Henley College, while also having a women’s programme at Cardinal Newman.
It is fair to say that Ealing are an unknown quantity, although it also can’t be denied that the work they have done with developing their pathway is impressive. Leicester’s journey to gaining a Premier 15s side has been a little longer, the side currently topping the Women’s Championship North 1 and working in partnership with Lichfield to establish the side in the top tier of women’s rugby in England.
"We are very pleased and equally excited by today's news that our bid to be a part of the Premier 15s has been successful,” Vicky Macqueen, Leicester Tigers Head of Women’s Rugby, said.
"Since launching the women's programme and pathway, in partnership with Lichfield, there was a clear plan to work our way up to being a part of the top-tier of women's rugby in this country and that opportunity has now arrived.
"The working relationship and commitment to that plan from everyone at Tigers, Lichfield and throughout the Leicestershire community has been integral to the steps we've taken so far and will continue to take - together - towards the Premier 15s.
"This is a big day for Leicester Tigers, a big day for women's rugby in our region and I am so pleased for everybody at the club that we have managed to reach this point through the hard work of all involved."
In their statement, the Rugby Football Union said that the competition has the capacity of 10 teams and there is a potential for clubs to join the league at a later stage. The three clubs omitted at this stage can also appeal, with that process due to be concluded by the end of February.
A noticeable impact of cutting out DMP and Sale in particular is that Loughborough are the northern-most team in the Premier 15s. In response to this, the RFU and the WP15s have said they will be exploring how a greater geographical spread can be provided in the league.
It is almost laughable to have no representation in the north, the region completely cut off by the RFU in their decision making and the Red Roses just several months away from hosting a TikTok Women’s Six Nations game in Newcastle and DMP having had to look to the public for funding in order to participate this season.
When the league had its last facelift, Sale Sharks replaced Waterloo as the north-west’s representatives, with players quick to share their dismay at learning that the club was unsuccessful in its application.
“This is heart-breaking as a player and as the lead in our Centre of Excellence trying to help develop a pathway for northern youth and aspiring Red Roses, who already think they are at a disadvantage being up north,” Leah Lyons said on Twitter.
Heartbroken doesn’t cut it??— India Perris-Redding (@IndPR) December 16, 2022
Devastating day for Northern Rugby.
I pride my role on providing opportunities for women and girls in our region, and having a visible pathway for aspiring players.
Forever proud of what we have built in 0161. https://t.co/0pCAa4xVtf
Through their decision to annex the clubs, the RFU have very much made the pathway to elite rugby for women in the north unclear. It is a saddening state of affairs, made all the more confusing when you consider that Sale are currently fifth in the table and home to numerous internationals.
“We truly want to represent the Fabric of the North and since the launch of the team in 2020, Sale Sharks Women has been an integral part of that vision,” Sid Sutton, Sale Sharks CEO, said.
“The team is at the heart of the culture we’re creating at Carrington and three wins in our first four games this season are evidence of the amazing progress being made on and off the field.
“That progress is down to the hard work of Rachel Taylor, her coaching staff and players, as well as the unwavering commitment of the club’s owners and the desire of the men’s players and coaches to support the development of the women’s team.
“We’re all disappointed that despite the stated desire to ensure a ‘greater geographical spread’ of teams, the Premier 15s won’t have any northern representation from 2023/24 but as a club we remain firmly and passionately committed to growing and supporting the women’s game in the north of England.”
In the Sale Sharks statement, Sutton described the club as being “devastated” and it was no doubt a mood shared by the other clubs who had their bids rejected. Worcester’s predicament can only be linked to the ownership troubles that the club are going through, with the RFU having rejected the administrators’ preferred bidders’ application to take charge of the club.
Looking to work with the RFU to gain one of the final spots, the Warriors responded to the news in emphatic fashion with a 50-0 win on the road to Wasps. Currently sitting at the bottom of the Allianz Premier 15s, Wasps are similarly in the dark about their future.
Having had the intention to link up with the men’s side in a more significant way by moving to Coventry, the side maintaining that intention after learning they would not take part in the Premier 15s as of next season.
It is a saddening state of affairs for a side which launched the international careers of Maud Muir, Claudia MacDonald and Ellie Kildunne, and are now waiting to learn their future after the men’s team was confirmed as returning to professional rugby as of next season in the Championship.