EXETER CHIEFS’ emphatic introduction to the Allianz Premier 15s has sparked more players dreaming of Devon, says head coach Susie Appleby.
Chiefs finished sixth last year, their maiden top-flight season, tying fifth-placed Gloucester-Hartpury Women with 50 points apiece but missing out on the top half of the table on points difference.
It’s been a busy offseason for Appleby, whose new signings include hooker Clara Nielson, a Devon native and Exeter University PhD graduate joining the club from Bristol Bears, alongside scrum-half Brooke Bradley, full-back/wing Olivia Jones and Japanese centre Kanako Kobayashi, who will join compatriot Sachiko Kato.
“Sachiko did an amazing job for us,” said Appleby, “and she brought with her also this amazing culture with her from Japan, attitude, enthusiasm, so it’s not by accident.
“We’ve got one more international but we also have players coming to us from different clubs, so they’ve looked on and said, ‘Oh, Exeter, they’re doing alright down there, I’m quite interested in going there.
“For us that’s an achievement in itself, because for us the players want to come and play, we’ve retained an awful lot of our squad and we’re moving forward.”
One of those retained players is American national captain Kate Zackary, one of four Eagles who swapped Stateside for the South Coast.
“Our minimum standard is top four,” said Zackary, whose squad kick off their sophomore campaign away at Bristol Bears.
“Obviously we all want to make it to the final, we all want to play in front of the biggest crowd and earn the biggest accolades, but truthfully sights are set on top four and obviously everything after that is a big bonus.”
Zackary debuted with the Women’s Eagles Sevens in 2015, earning her first cap with the 15s the following year.
A strong Sevens contingent is coming into this Premier 15s season fresh off the plane from the Tokyo Olympics, which Zackary thinks could have an impact on the domestic league.
She said: “The Olympics is the greatest platform out there, as far as rugby goes, next to the World Cup, so it’s the biggest opportunity to showcase the sport.
“In some countries it’s still growing and we need every opportunity to get eyes on the sport, whether that is Sevens or 15s.
“Sevens is the earliest introduction, the easiest introduction for people, so it was great to see the players out again doing the sport they love.
“A lot of great players, a lot of great teams stepped up. I think there were a lot of surprises and I think that will also trickle down to what you see in the Allianz as well as the international level.”
Despite the challenges of Covid, clubs rallied together on and off the field to ensure they continued momentum and completed what was a very competitive campaign last season, culminating in a memorable final in which Harlequins emerged victorious over Saracens.
And Appleby believes the pandemic might have helped her group of individuals become a new team to be reckoned with once again this season.
She said: “They had their own really special group and friendships developing because they had to do everything together, it was almost more exaggerated.
“From that comes the culture of ‘I’m going to watch your back because I’ve become very close to you.
“And that’s massively important when you step over the white line.”
The Allianz Premier 15s is the top-flight women’s domestic rugby union competition in England. For all the latest news from the Allianz Premier 15s, you can follow @Premier15s on Twitter and Instagram. You can also watch live action on Premier15s.com throughout the 2021/22 campaign.