Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Harlequins Women: The Transitional Champions?

Posted on 8 June 2022 by Yoseph Kiflie
The Stoop before Harlequins Women played against Saracens in February


Saracens Women were crowned Premier 15s champions for the third time, beating Exeter Chiefs in the final last Friday.

This was the first time that the final was not between Saracens and Harlequins, who instead faced each other in the semi-finals.

That loss ended Harlequins’ season, and their defence of the Premier 15s title. Both Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs finished above Quins, the first teams apart from Saracens to do so in the Premier 15s.

While it is a mixed season for the south west London, their fortunes represent period of a historic progress for the sport.

This articles will look at the themes of what has been a transitional season for the Harlequins, and argue, in the long term, why it’s a good thing for women’s rugby that they don’t have everything go their own way.

Squad Overhaul

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Before this season the Premier 15s had arguably been too consistent.

Only five teams have ever made the four-team playoffs. Out of the 30 women starting for Harlequins and Saracens in the 2019 final, only seven were no longer playing for those two clubs when they met in last year’s final (four of them were retired).

If the best teams retain all their talent, they are likely to stay as the two best teams. We can see that in Harlequins this season.

They made eight senior signings since the end of last season, which creates new challenges.

Georgia Bradley spoke to me about some of them after her debut against Sale Sharks in February following her move from Loughborough Lightning.

“First match nerves is always something that plays into it, but it’s been a really good week, training, coming in with the girls. Everyone’s really supported me. So it’s nice to just get that first one out of the way.”

Four of the signings – Rosie Galligan, Sarah Bonar, Amelia Harper, and Ellie Kildunne – started against Saracens in the semi-final.

For comparison, scrum half Ella Wyrwas was the only player in the Sarries XV that was not at the north London club last year.

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This consistency would be a key factor in Saracens returning as champions. They had one more win than the season before and finished comfortably first.

It became clear from early in the season that Saracens were once again the team to beat. When I spoke to Harlequins fly-half Emily Scott in December, before their first meeting, she was wary of their threat.

“It’ll be really tough. We know they’re always going to be a tough game. We need to make sure our breakdown is really secure.”

Quins would go on inflict Saracens’ first defeat of the season, but it was not plain-sailing from there. They would end up getting 12 points less than the season before and dropped from 2nd to fourth.

Saracens were no longer the only team they had to worry about.

Stronger Competition

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Chloe Rollie, Leanne Infante, and Abbie Ward all started for Quins in the 2021 Premier 15s final.

Since then, Rollie moved to Exeter. The other two have gone to Bristol. Both teams finished above Harlequins this year.

The improvement of both sides has been rapid. In just one season, Bristol rocketed from 8th to 3rd, while Exeter jumping from 6th to 2nd.

This was achieved through greater investment, which can be clearly seen in the influx of international players.

While the traditional big two of Harlequins and Saracens still made up the majority of the England squad, the players can no longer take it for granted that they’ll play.

If we look at the amount of minutes played during the last two Six Nations, a more egalitarian picture emerges.

The proportion of England gametime taken by Quins players has decreased from over 30% of total minutes, to just over 20% of total minutes in 2022.

This is not lost on the players. When I asked Quins winger Jess Breach in January about her hopes for making the England squad for the Six Nations, she told me:

“I’m just taking every game as it comes, putting my best foot forward, trusting in my ability and just see where that takes me in the England shirt. I’d love to play Six Nations but I’m enjoying playing for Quins at the moment.”

Furthermore, Bristol and Exeter are also filled with other internationals.

Both sides had more players in the autumn internationals than Harlequins, and those players played more minutes.

Staggeringly, despite only Saracens players having played more minutes, not one of Exeter’s internationals were English, something which admittedly has been a recent source of contention.

This growth has made them more competitive.

Exeter achieved the double over Quins, and alongside being Premier 15s finalists they won the Allianz Cup. Bristol initially led the league for many weeks, with a 100% points record in their first six games, comprehensively beating Harlequins at The Stoop on the way.

In fact, Quins would lose to Exeter and Bristol in back-to-back home games, causing a massive obstacle to their defence of the Premier 15s title.

Making themselves at home

The Stoop

The home losses hurt, but the fact that these games were played at The Stoop is more likely to be remembered than the results.

This is the first season where the south west London club has played every home league game in south west London.

The only home game not played at The Stoop was when a crowd of over 9,000, a world record for a women’s league match, watched Quins beat Wasps at Twickenham Stadium, the home of English rugby.

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Playing at The Stoop was something that many players would not have imagined happening during their careers. At games you can catch the opposing team taking pictures and taking in the surroundings.

This was a feeling that struck Bradley on her debut as well.

“It’s exciting to have my first game at home at the Stoop. It’s an amazing environment to come into and Quins do put on a really good spectacle.”

Every team in this year’s playoff play their home games in the same stadium as the men’s teams. Harlequins, Bristol, and Exeter all average attendances of over 1,000.

Yes, it was a disappointing season for Quins on the pitch. But when you place it in the context of what is happening off the pitch, it appears in a different light.

The semi-final loss will be forgotten. What won’t be forgotten is the atmosphere in the StoneX stadium that day, and the record-breaking crowds in Twickenham Stadium. Nor will the fact that the game was shown live on the BBC and BT Sport be forgotten, following in the broadcasting deal agreed in November.

The losses to Exeter and Bristol hurt, but that pain doesn’t take away from work achieved in campaigns such as #RainbowLaces weekend to promote LGBT inclusivity. This will linger in the minds of the next generation of fans for much longer.

This is important to the club too, as Scott made clear to me:

“It’s great for us. Harlequins are one of the leading clubs when it comes to inclusion. We all had rainbow laces in the changing rooms to wear today or put in our hair. It’s really important to us that we’re inclusive.”

Harlequins did not remain Premier 15s champions. However, their season shaped, and been shaped by, positive changes in the league this year.

This, in the long run, ensures that the Premier 15s is something worth winning.

You can read more of the author’s work here.