Saracens Women’s Head Coach Alex Austerberry was critical of the RFU for describing the Premier 15s season as ‘null and void’ when it announced the women’s league had ended as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

He spoke to RugbySaracens before the furlough scheme kicked in April to outline his thoughts on that announcement, the loss of the Development League, the RFU’s decision to replace historic women’s clubs Waterloo and Richmond with new Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks Women squads in next season’s Premier 15s next season, and lockdown preparation for next season.

 

Memories and records remain despite ‘null and void’ announcement

Alex Austerberry said the phrase used was disappointing and incorrect, commenting that “It almost suggests there’s no recognition of everyone’s hard work, which is not actually accurate. The results do stand and the statistics. They are not expunging what happened, just not announcing a winner.”

That seems to be important information that surprisingly the RFU has not made clear in its communications about the curtailed TP15s season. Although the season has ended early with no champion, Loughborough Lightning’s flyer Rhona Lloyd finishes it as the 2019-20 top try-scorer with 15 tries. Saracens Women’s Lisa Martin is the league’s 2019-20 top kicker with 99 points from her boot and Loughborough Lightning’s Emily Scarratt ends the season as the top points scorer with 121 points.

Defending champions Saracens Women were leading the league after the twelve rounds played before the league was brought to a premature end. The club was also riding high at the top of the Development League. Both squads were unbeaten. While neither they nor any of the challenging teams will now get a chance to secure the 2019-20 titles, the efforts of the players are not entirely in vain, at least in the record books and in building confidence for the new season whenever that starts.

Austerberry commented that, “We’ve got sixty-odd players who week in, week out, put their bodies on the line. You can’t take away that as a club we had a fantastic two-thirds of a season. Ultimately the business end of the season would have been now and that’s where you really find out a lot about yourselves. But everyone had put us in a good position. That was a great platform to launch from.”

The RFU’s ‘null and void’ description also doesn’t erase some of the memories made during the season. The Saracens Head Coach highlighted some special occasions for both the TP15s and Development League sides.

“No one can say actually Quins away didn’t exist, those tries didn’t happen, defending the line in the last play didn’t matter. They’re still there, it’s just a case we don’t have the standard closure to the season, but we can use that as something we can moan about or drive us on to be even more successful next season.”

“The Loughborough away game was probably a defining moment in our season. They are a very good side who we would expect to meet somewhere in the play-offs. That last forty minutes was defining in that we could come back from adversity… We kept going and for Libby to score at the end was special.”

“I’ll keep going back to that. People talk about certain names and certain people, but the strength of Saracens is the quality of players and competition we’ve got throughout. Some people might underestimate some players on a team sheet, but we know how important they are, and how at pivotal moments anyone of our players can step up and make a difference. In that second half there was a real injection from off the bench and it took everyone up to another level. It set us the right mentality for the season. It helped us to understand that whatever the situation the belief was there that we could get out of it.”

 

Development League axed

Alex also expressed disappointment at the axing of the Development League from next season. Saracens Women won the title in 2019 and were set well to defend their title as the only unbeaten side with the league’s joint top try scorer in Emilie Hellgren (11 tries – equal with Wasps Ladies Makeda Lewis) and top kicker in Ellie-Louise Lennon (70 point from the boot). Harlequins Women’s Victoria Petersson was the league’s top points scorer with 75 points when then league was prematurely ended.

The Saracens Head Coach commented that, “I think the importance of that league and those opportunities created there are sometimes overlooked. The time and resource you invest in there will pay off heavily going forward. You see some of the players who have come through the club, whether that be pre-Tyrrells where we had our second team in the Championship and during the Tyrrells period. It’s a really good breeding ground for youngsters, giving them exposure in environments where they are learning off world-class players, players who have been to World Cups, done most things in the game of rugby.”

When asked what the loss of the development league would mean for the squad, Alex said, “All performance sports teams have another side where they can get exposure. Whether it’s football with U20s, U23s, A League or the like, it gives competition and that’s important for development and for pushing standards. We’ll explore options to make sure that our players have appropriate opportunities and exposure to keep developing and producing players that can perform on the world stage. We’ve got a lot of youngsters coming through that are really exciting, and that’s my main concern: where does a young player get exposure?”

Alex said that the club are exploring the extent to which Championship sides might offer opportunities to link up with Saracens Women and ensure this young talent can be tested outside the Premier15s environment. He described ‘some irons in the fire’ but has not yet reached any agreements with the RFU or other clubs.

Alex sees this though as part of a longer-term move towards ensuring these players are ready not so much for the World Cup in New Zealand next year but looking five years ahead to the one after that. Alex explained that developing talent is core to the Saracens Women’s (and Men’s) ethos. He said, “We’re going to have to find ways to ensure we can keep on doing that and build and challenge players to be capable of excelling at the next level.”

 

Smaller but familiar squad next season

Alex reflected on the likely shape of the squad for next season, suggesting that other than having to cut players with the axing of the Development League, there would be few changes.

“It’s not going to be a case of wholesale changes. There are a few players who move on because the time is right for them, whether that be rugby or a lifestyle change. The continuity and the quality we have, the bonds and relationships we have are fundamental to our success, so it won’t be baby out with bath water. I expect the vast majority of players to still be around and that’ll be healthy and good for us.”

 

Salary cap thoughts

Alex commented that salary cap discussions were still ongoing between Premier 15 clubs and the RFU. He said, “We need the game to be as competitive as possible, but also clubs shouldn’t be punished for developing players.”

 

Farewell Waterloo and Richmond

Alex provided his perspective on the news that Waterloo and Richmond had lost their places in the Premier15s for the next three seasons.

“First and foremost, I’ve great respect for what Waterloo have done for the women’s game for a long time. They have driven standards forward and done a lot to put, and keep, rugby union on the map in the north-west. It’s immensely disappointing for everyone involved in that club and the wider area. As a team, looking in, we’re disappointed for them. We’ve seen the efforts and challenges they have faced and overcome. Most importantly we’ve enjoyed playing against them in some cracking encounters.”

“The same with Richmond. My staple diet in the women’s game was understanding that Richmond and Saracens is a big rivalry. I think back to games we’ve won and lost, championships we’ve won and lost; a 14-13 score line at their place a few years back and we ended up losing the league by a point. The rich tapestry of the two clubs is intertwined through the history of time. On a personal note, it’s sad to see that go. There’s a lot of respect to Richmond and what they’ve done, and I hope that we can keep that link with them. The history of the game is really important, and they have been at the forefront of that with ourselves.”

“As it turns out, our last game of the Premier 15s season was down at Richmond and it was a challenge. I always look forward to that fixture because it’s got such meaning for everyone at the club. So, for that no longer to happen is disappointing at a personal level, but that doesn’t match the disappointment that those clubs have, and I do wish them both the very best. I hope we see them once again, whether that be a fixture against Richmond that celebrates the history between the two, or both re-entering the league at the next application. The more teams we can have playing at the higher level is fundamental to the growth and development.”

 

League expansion on hold for now

Some in the game had been calling for the Premier 15s to be expanded rather than lose clubs. Alex sympathised but suggested the game was probably not ready yet for that.

“We can’t underestimate the strength of the pyramid below. There’s a lot of good teams with the likes of Old Albanians, West Park, Cheltenham, Thurrock and many more besides. As long as players are effectively signposted and captured at an appropriate level and they can be developed, then I think it can push the game forward to a point where hopefully we can grow the domestic league. Growth is probably something we want to work towards, but it has to be at the right time, with the right number of quality players out there. In the next cycle round it’s definitely something that needs to be looked at again.”

 

Welcome Exeter and Sale

Alex welcomed the new sides joining the Premier15s in September, saying “it will be exciting to see what Exeter and Sale bring to the table. There is a strong Sarries connection at Exeter with Amy Garnett and Susie Appleby. It’ll be two different places to go and we’re expecting a challenge. Hopefully, we’ll keep as a collective driving it forward, but remembering we sit on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in the game, the likes of Waterloo, Richmond and Lichfield. There are a lot of teams out there who have invested a hell of a lot to make sure the game has gone forward. That’s now the duty of the ten Premier 15s teams to make sure we keep doing that.”

“Hopefully in three years the growth of the game will be immeasurable, the crowds will be full and the numbers of people playing across every level will have increased. That’s when we will have a really healthy game.”

 

Lockdown and planning for the future

Alex’s team of coaches have been in close touch with all the squad throughout the lockdown period as minds turn towards next season, currently thought to be starting in September 2020. Alex said the players all have a personalised remote programme with homework and development activities. This is “all linked to making them better but also where we want to be come preseason.”

That preseason is expected to start in early July, pending agreement that it’s safe to do so. Alex said that, “we’re in conversations with a few clubs about what preseason will look like.” He said that could include a joint training day with another club to get new challenge and voices in the camp. A pre-season game in France is a possibility, again depending on health restrictions in place at the time.