Harlequins' match against Wasps on Monday will be the first competitive Premier 15s match ever staged at Twickenham
Credit: JUAN GASPARINI
There are few better examples of how women’s sport is still adjusting to post-pandemic life than Shaunagh Brown. This time last year, the Harlequins prop was one of many in the Premier 15s playing under adapted law variations designed to reduce Covid transmission, which included fewer scrums and 35-minute halves.
“If it was an option between no crowds and law variations, I would choose [the] normal game and no crowds,” said Brown, who was involved with but did not start any of England’s recent autumn games.
“Personally, it affected me so much last year with scrums. I’m still learning how to scrum and not being able to do it week in, week out, sometimes 25 times a game, it affected my development. I would certainly not want to go back to the old law variations.”
It remains to be seen whether such adaptations will be re-introduced in the wake of surging Covid cases driven by the Omicron variant. Granted, they would be a detriment to the Premier 15s in its most competitive season yet. Last week saw a stuttering Loughborough Lightning outfit shock league leaders Bristol Bears, while Harlequins upstaged rivals Saracens in their own backyard.
For the reigning Premier 15s champions, it was the ideal preparation before an historic match against Wasps at the home of English rugby on Monday.
The festive fixture – which forms part of Harlequins’ annual ‘Big Game’ double-header – will be the first competitive Premier 15s match ever staged at Twickenham. In another first, the women’s fixture has been granted equal television billing as Harlequins’ men’s game against Northampton Saints, with BT Sport showing both games.
For Brown, who six months ago implored broadcasters to “put women on a platform” during a rousing post-match interview after helping Harlequins to their maiden Premier 15s title, TV parity is a welcome step.
BT Sport will also be showing Quins' tussle with Wasps at the home of English rugby
Credit: JUAN GASPARINI
“Finally we’re at a place where common sense has prevailed,” said Brown. “The cameras are there, the presenters are there – everything’s in place, so why not? BT Sport have realised that there is an appetite for women’s rugby and people want to watch it.”
It was Brown’s stirring speech on that hot day back in June which ultimately played a role in convincing the powers that be that the Premier 15s is TV-ready. Now, it appears the rugby gods are listening. Earlier this month, after England drew a peak audience of one million on BBC Two during their autumn internationals, the BBC is now showing one weekly Premier 15s fixture on its app and iPlayer.
For Rachael Burford, the Harlequins captain, playing a first league match at Twickenham will cap off a memorable past 12 months for women’s rugby as it heads into a World Cup year – and when competition domestically is at an all-time high.
“I’ve said it in previous years, I’m not sure about the top four, but I genuinely mean it this time,” said Burford. “Teams are well settled with their programmes and you’re seeing that reflected on the pitch. If you don’t perform on the day, you’re going to be in trouble, no matter who you are.”
Rachael Burford will lead Harlequins out at Twickenham for the first time on Monday
Credit: JUAN GASPARINI
That same philosophy will be even more than applicable on Monday night when perennial play-off contenders Wasps will look to leapfrog Quins into third in the table. The reigning Premier 15s champions will be bolstered by the return of wing Jess Breach, who has recovered after breaking her back during England training two months ago.
And while the occasion will be steeped in significance, Brown and Burford are united in their belief that there are more important boxes to tick off the Premier 15s checklist, such as paying club players to play.
“For me, it’s about always wanting more,” said Brown. “Yes, we can celebrate how well the women’s game is doing but let’s celebrate it and not settle. Some people might be in danger of thinking, ‘There were 10,000 at Exeter who watched England play and we’ve got Premier 15s games on BBC iPlayer.
“It’s all fantastic stuff and it’s huge progress when you compare it to the year before, but we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go. Let’s praise these companies for finally getting on board – but let’s keep pushing those barriers and boundaries.”