Harlequins won their first league title last season

The Premier 15s season kicks off this weekend with Harlequins looking to retain their title.

But with the 2021-22 contest set to be the most competitive yet thanks to a host of new signings, it’s nearly impossible to predict who will finish in the top four.

Here we take a look at each club, who their key players are, how they performed last season and which signings could make an impact for them.

Harlequins

Last season’s position: Champions (second in regular season table)

Harlequins won their first Premier 15s title, beating Saracens 25-17 in the final in May.

It capped a dominant season for the team as they won 14 games, drew once and had just three losses in the regular season.

And after losing two other league finals to Saracens, Quins were understandably ecstatic at lifting the trophy.

Key player – Jess Breach

Jess Breach was key to Quins’ title win as she scored 15 tries last season.

She was injured in their semi-final against Wasps so couldn’t compete in the final but her sensational try in the play-off grabbed headlines.

The England international is still rehabbing her injury and while Quins haven’t confirmed when she will return, it’s expected to be early in the season.

Key signing – Ellie Kildunne

Ellie Kildunne signed an undisclosed deal in June after spending a season at Wasps.

The fast-paced full-back will add to the formidable backs at Quins and she will link up with her England team-mates at the club.

“I’ve spoken to Shaunagh [Brown] about the club and she had only positive things to say so I can’t wait to experience the great culture they have at Quins, meet all my new team-mates and aim to defend the Allianz Premier 15s title,” Kildunne said.

Coach – Gerard Mullen

Gerard Mullen joined Quins before the 2020-21 season and his tenure has had the perfect start.

He won the Premier 15s title, taking the trophy from the only other winners, Saracens.

Mullen has also managed to re-sign stars including Amy Cokayne, Lagi Tuima and Lucy Packer.

Opening match: The defending champions will open their campaign against Loughborough Lightning at the Stoop on 5 September, 15:00 BST kick-off.

Saracens

Poppy Cleall catches the ball in a line-out
Poppy Cleall re-signed for Saracens this summer

Last season’s position: Runner-up (first in regular-season table)

Saracens had a stellar season last campaign bar one game – the final.

They finished the regular fixtures ahead of Harlequins after winning 15 games, drawing one and losing two.

However, after Quins took an early lead in the final Saracens couldn’t recover, even with an impressive comeback. They will be aiming to take back the trophy this season.

Key player – Poppy Cleall

Number eight Poppy Cleall is one of the best players in the world and she improves on her game every year.

Not only is she a solid carrier, she was the third-highest try scorer last season with 16 and the eighth-highest point scorer with 80 to her name.

On top of that, the England international was named Women’s Six Nations Player of the Tournament.

Key signing – Ella Wyrwas

Scrum-half Ella Wyrwas returns to Saracens after leaving for Loughborough Lightning in 2018 to study biology at Loughborough University.

Wyrwas won the 2017-18 title at Sarries and is aiming to help them win the trophy back this term.

“I’m really excited to be back with my home club, where my rugby journey began. I’ll be working alongside some of the best players in the league, so there’s huge opportunities for me to learn and grow my own game,” she said.

Coach – Alex Austerberry

Alex Austerberry signed for the London club in August 2018 and went on to lead Saracens to win the 2018-19 title.

Straight-talking Austerberry was disappointed after they lost the final last term, but he is sure his team will bounce back.

“In the heat of the moment it’s easy to get frustrated but we need to look at our processes and how we prepared the players for it. I don’t think we were a million miles off,” he said.

Opening match: Saracens will play their league opener against Wasps at Twyford Avenue on 5 September, 15:00 BST kick-off.

Wasps

Abby Dow makes a break against Exeter
Abby Dow is a key player for Wasps

Last season’s position: Third

Wasps had an improved season, partly thanks to the dynamic sevens players they signed, including Celia Quansah and Meg Jones.

They beat Saracens 26-24 and had one of the biggest victories in the league’s history when they defeated DMP Durham Sharks 105-0 in the regular season.

The team secured a top-four finish but they fell at the penultimate hurdle when Harlequins beat them in the semi-final 25-14.

Key player – Abby Dow

Winger Abby Dow’s pace, breaks and knowledge of the game is unique and her continued ability to score for both club and country makes her an important player for any team she competes for.

She scored 14 tries last campaign, making her the 10th highest scorer in the league.

If fans aren’t already huge supporters of Dow, her Twitter is dedicated to puns.

Key signing – Bryony Cleall

It’s arguably the shock of the summer that Bryony Cleall left Saracens for Wasps.

She was at Sarries, alongside twin Poppy, for five seasons in which she won two Premier 15s titles – but it seems she seeks a fresh challenge.

“Buzzing for a new challenge! Bring on the first game of the season,” she tweeted.

Coach – Giselle Mather

Giselle Mather is lauded by all players coached by her.

She joined Wasps in 2016 and has led her team to top-four finishes in every Premier 15s season since it began in 2017.

Her passion for the game and incredible signings this window will see Wasps once again fighting for that semi-final spot.

Opening match: Wasps start their campaign against Saracens at Twyford Avenue on 5 September, 15:00 BST kick-off.

Loughborough Lightning

Lark Davies with ball in hand
Lark Davies scored 20 tries last season

Last season’s position: Fourth

Loughborough had a good season and managed to bag the last semi-final spot, but they were slightly less clinical than those ahead of them in the table, with six losses.

They won 12 in the regular season and narrowly missed out on a place in the final as they were beaten 28-24 by Saracens.

Key player – Lark Davies

Hooker Lark Davies scored the most tries in the league last season, with 20.

It was the first full season Davies could impress her club as she signed in 2019 before the term was curtailed due to Covid.

The England international also had an impressive campaign internationally as she was part of Simon Middleton’s winning Six Nations team.

Coach – Rhys Edwards

Rhys Edwards joined Loughborough in 2017 and has since overseen the club to fifth, third and fourth place finishes respectively.

Edwards has retained a lot of his internationals this summer, including Emily Scarratt, which boosts their chances.

He will be once again aiming for a top-four finish.

Opening match: Loughborough will play Harlequins at the Stoop on 5 September, 15:00 BST kick-off.

Gloucester-Hartpury

Natasha Hunt retrieves the ball from the ruck
Natasha Hunt went to Tokyo to compete at the Olympics

Last season’s position: Fifth

It was tough competition for the fifth place spot with Exeter even mistakenly announcing they had finished in fifth at the end of the season.

Both finished on 50 points but Gloucester had two more try bonus points than their rivals.

The Cherry and Whites notched 10 wins and eight losses, and with a cleaner game plan the team have the potential to finish in the top four.

Key player – Natasha Hunt

England 15s and sevens international Natasha Hunt is a role model for a generation of players and she continues to sizzle on the pitch.

To top off another great season as club captain the scrum-half represented Team GB in the sevens squad who finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics.

The World Cup winner is a crucial player for Gloucester in terms of consistency and leadership.

Coach – Sean Lynn

Sean Lynn was named head coach at Gloucester in December 2019 after the team had recorded fourth and fifth finishes in the first two seasons of the Premier 15s.

Covid halted his first season in charge and so his only campaign on his record was last season.

He will be aiming to get the team back into the top four this season, and the potential in the squad and coaches could make it a reality.

Opening match: Gloucester will host DMP Durham Sharks in their league opener at Alpas Arena on 4 September, 16:30 BST kick-off.

Exeter Chiefs

Patricia Garcia Rodriguez preparing to throw the ball
Patricia Garcia Rodriguez had a good season with Exeter

Last season’s position: Sixth

Exeter’s first season in the Premier 15s blew everyone away with the team defeating Saracens for the first time since October 2018. The Chiefs beat Sarries 22-14 in January.

They also defeated Harlequins and led from the front in creating the most competitive season of the league so far.

A top-four finish is within their grasp in the upcoming campaign.

Key player – Patricia Garcia Rodriguez

The experienced Spain scrum-half has played club rugby in five countries, and featured in World Cups at both 15-a-side and sevens, as well as representing her country at the 2016 Olympics.

She has taken on a bigger club role after signing a new contract in June, as she will become manager of the Exeter women’s academy.

“With this role, I feel I can leave some of my legacy here in England,” she said after signing her new deal.

Key signing – Clara Nielson

Hooker Clara Nielson signed for Exeter from Bristol Bears, where she played for nine years as her only previous senior club.

The player is dependable at set-piece and a good leadership voice in a squad.

“Looking forward to getting started. Excited for this one,” she tweeted after her arrival.

Coach – Susie Appleby

Susie Appleby joined Exeter for their first season, leaving her position at Gloucester.

She had said before the campaign started she wanted Exeter to finish in the top half of the table and she achieved that.

The former England scrum-half has re-signed big names and brought in several other players to propel the club to further success.

Opening match: Exeter will first play Bristol Bears at Shaftesbury Park on 4 September, 12:00 BST kick-off.

Worcester Warriors

Jade Shekells runs with the ball
Worcester improved their form last season

Last season’s position: Seventh

Worcester had an improved season but in a more competitive league they couldn’t get further than seventh.

However, it was the first time they had not finished bottom of the table and they won the most games in a campaign they ever have, with five victories.

They have built a foundation to climb the table this season.

Key player – Jade Shekells

Centre Jade Shekells had a great season last term, so much so she was voted Player’s Player of the Year.

She scored five tries and was consistently in good form, which helped steer the team to their finishing position.

Her season-on-season improvement is a valuable component to the team’s progression.

Key signing – Ellen Murphy

Ireland fly-half Ellen Murphy joined Worcester from Old Belvedere and she is a great addition to the club.

She has Premier 15s experience with Gloucester and is a hardworking and exciting back.

“I can’t wait to develop myself further as an individual with a really talented squad,” she said.

Coach – Jo Yapp

Jo Yapp was appointed Worcester’s director of rugby in August 2019, being promoted from skills coach.

When hired she was described as a “significant appointment” by co-owner Jason Whittingham and she hasn’t disappointed.

Her influence has developed the team into a more cohesive and attacking unit.

Opening match: Worcester will start their campaign against Sale Sharks at Sixways Stadium on 4 September, 13:30 BST kick-off.

Bristol Bears

Elinor Snowsill kicks a penalty for Bristol
Elinor Snowsill is a key player for Bristol

Last season’s position: Eighth

Bristol ended their season in eighth after a bumpy term for the club, managing just four wins.

However, they brought in a lot of Welsh players who sparkled in the league – especially Elinor Snowsill, Siwan Lillicrap and Jasmine Joyce.

The amount of talent in the squad could see them prove a threat for other teams this season.

Key player – Elinor Snowsill

Wales fly-half Elinor Snowsill has used her pace and knowledge of the game to run Bristol’s game from 10.

Plying her trade at the club has also strengthened bonds with her international team-mates.

Snowsill’s openness about her sexuality and struggles with online trolls has marked her as a role model for fans and young players.

Key signing – Leanne Riley

It was a shock to see scrum-half Leanne Riley leave Harlequins for Bristol, but it’s a huge move for the west country team.

Riley has become a regular player in England’s set-up and won the Premier 15s title with Quins last season.

However, she has revealed she has a non-rugby related injury which has meant she had to have an ankle operation and it is unclear when she will be available for the club.

Coach – Dave Ward

Former Quins player Dave Ward has signed on as Bristol head coach ahead of the upcoming season.

His clear passion for the game will be valuable for the the club and his ideas of how to link the men’s and women’s teams promotes equality.

The side have already announced dual sponsorships for men and women players; Ward attends men’s coaching sessions while the men’s team coaches are also part of the women’s training.

Opening match: Bristol will start the season against Exeter at Shaftesbury Park on 4 September, 12:00 BST kick-off.

Sale Sharks

Lisa Neumann is tackled
Sale Sharks had their first season in the league last term

Last season’s position: Ninth

For their first season in the Premier 15s they had a solid campaign with wins over clubs like Exeter and Worcester.

They finished ninth after four wins and 14 losses and Sale will be hoping to progress in the upcoming campaign.

The players and coaches the team have should see them build on their form.

Key player – Jodie Ounsley

Jodie Ounsley is an inspirational winger whose pace baffles defenders and her clever plays are why she is crucial to the Sale Sharks team.

Her sevens experience gives an edge to her game and she will continue to impress for the club this season.

Ounsley won Deaf Sports Personality of 2020.Coach – Rachel Taylor, Katy Daley-Mclean and Callum Yorke

Rachel Taylor, Katy Daley-Mclean and Callum Yorke are the three coaches in the staff at Sale with each taking on a separate role.

Former England player Daley-Mclean, who will remain a player at the club, has been named the women’s performance lead with Yorke appointed head of operations for women’s rugby.

Former Wales national skills coach Taylor has been named as Sale Sharks’ new women’s performance coach.

Opening match: Sale first play Worcester at Sixways Stadium on 4 September, 13:00 BST kick-off.

DMP Durham Sharks

Beth Blacklock looks disappointed after a loss
DMP only won one match last season

Last season’s position: 10th

DMP had a disappointing season with just one win.

They suffered 103-0 and 105-0 losses to Harlequins and Wasps but they did make progress throughout the season to inflict a victory over Sale Sharks.

The team will be looking to take this momentum forward into the new season.

Key player – Lauren Torley

Winger Lauren Torley impressed in her first senior season last campaign.

Her skills on the pitch are inspiring considering she stopped playing full contact rugby after puncturing a lung at university.

When Covid saw the touch game suspended, she returned to contact and has flourished on the top-flight stage.

Key signing – Zoe Hornby

Zoe Hornby is switching codes as she joins DMP from rugby league club Leeds Rhinos.

The forward scored three tries for Rhinos and is sure to bring her attacking ways to the northern club.

It will be interesting to see how she adapts to the league and what impact she can have at the side.

Coach – Jake Rodgers

Former DMP assistant Jake Rodgers will take charge as head coach this season and his tenure will bring consistency to the team, along with huge ambition.

“The squad contains a plethora of talent across the group and I believe there is a real opportunity to develop the players into future Internationals,” he said.

Opening match: DMP will play Gloucester in their season opener at Alpas Arena on 4 September, 16:30 BST kick-off.