Exeter Chiefs Women, who currently sit second in the table after just two games, face a surprisingly slow starting Harlequins side this weekend, who sit in fourth place on just six points from their opening three matches of the competition. The last time the two sides locked horns, the Chiefs came out on top in an impressive 54-25 win, which they will be looking to emulate this Saturday.
After a disappointing trip to Sale last weekend, with the Chiefs making the journey to South Manchester only for the game to be called off due to the frosty conditions, assistant coach Steve Salvin spoke about the unfortunate cancellation of the game, and addressed concerns that there wasn’t enough done to get the game to go ahead, as there might have been had it been a men’s game.
“It’s just one of those things. I mean, we’re having a bit of a disrupted day today with the weather. But that’s just, that is what it is. It’s a slightly disrupted day. We’ve just got to adapt and we’ll get on with it. You know, at some point we’ll replay that game, and hopefully when we do, we’ll put a decent performance in. But, you know, there were no frowns after the game, the girls were all still smiling. It was just one of those situations that couldn’t be helped.
“I would imagine most of the surfaces that the men play on are slightly different than the one at Heywood Road. You know, that’s a small traditional rugby club whereas obviously a good number of the grounds in the men’s Premiership have got under soil heating and things like that. So I don’t know what went on, what went off behind the scenes.
“The only thing I know is that when we arrived at the ground, there were areas of the pitch that were dangerous and we weren’t prepared to put any of our players at risk. So you might well be right, I don’t know the answer to it, but at least all our players came home fit and well, and that was the most important bit.”
Harlequins have lost their last two games in a row, with their only win of the season so far coming on the opening day of the competition, a 22-17 win away against Trailfinders. Since then they have lost 35-31 to Sale Sharks and were beaten heavily at home against Saracens 0-31. This poor form comes as a surprise to many people, and none so more than Steve Salvin, who knows all too well about the quality of the players the Quins have in their ranks, with the likes of Silvia Turani and Flo Robinson leaving Sandy Park for the Stoop at the start of this season.
“It’s interesting looking at Quins at the moment because I think everyone would probably admit that they’ve not had the start to the season that us included would have expected, and the reason I say that is they’ve got an incredibly talented bunch of players. You know, three players from here left last year to go there; Silvia Turani, Abbie Fleming and Flo Robinson and all three of those are playing regularly. And we know how talented those three are.
“They’ve signed other players too, the likes of Connie Powell, and they’ve got players like Ellie Kilburn in and around their team, so it’s an exceptionally talented group of players. Now what we expect is at some point that’s going to click and we’re preparing on the assumption that that’s going to happen this weekend, because I don’t foresee them performing at the level that they did against Sale or at Saracen’s last weekend. This weekend, we’re expecting a far, far tougher test.”
A recent law change that will come into effect in 2024 states that teams must have at least 15 EQP’s (English Qualified Players) in their matchday squad. This means that teams with lots of foreign players in their side will have to cull some of those players in order to meet the requirements the league is setting out. This meant that at the end of last season, the Chiefs saw up to nine non-EQPs leaving the club in order for Exeter to be ready for when the law is set into place. Steve Salvin believes his side is not at the same level now as it was then for this reason, and thinks that the Chiefs have ‘room to grow’.
“We know we’ve got room for growth. And one of the main reasons I say that is that with the EQP stipulations coming in this year, we saw seven, eight or nine non-EQP players leave last year who were all established international players. They didn’t necessarily play every week for us in terms of starting 15, but what they did, they gave us real good strength in depth. The majority of those players have now been replaced by young English players.
“You know, we brought a couple of overseas players in, but the majority of those changes have come from our academy, our university. So the way I see us at the moment is, I think in terms of where we are at the moment, I don’t think we’re quite at the same level we were probably of last year or the year before, but I think we have a higher ceiling because we’ve got players 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old who’ve all got huge room for growth.
“So that would be my take on it. Now what that means in terms of whether we’re playing top four semi-finals, Prem finals, whether we make the top six, the honest answer is we don’t know at the moment and we’ll find out as the season goes, but we are incredibly excited by this group of players because we do think the ceiling for their development is so high.”
The rolling maul has become a staple and a fan favourite of the Exeter Chiefs attack over the years. The Chief’s opponents this weekend, Harlequins, fell victim to a rolling maul that pushed them back 50 metres against Saracens last weekend, and Steve Salvin is hoping it will have the same effect for his side this weekend, although he’s trying not to focus on it too much.
“Well, you’ll it see every weekend we play because like you said, we do use it as quite an important part of our attacking armoury, but to be completely frank, we’ve put no extra special attention on it this week in terms of where we intend on mauling or any other specific focuses around it.
“We know when we get into certain areas of the field, it is a strength of ours, but I’ve said this consistently across the women’s prem, that what’s starting to happen is as areas of the game tend to improve, the flip side of that then starts to get better as well. So I think the mall defence over the last couple of years in the prem has got significantly better. So whatever area is starting to dominate, what I think we’re starting to see is players and coaches who are improving themselves and then being able to adapt to these things.”
Thanks to the Sale game being cancelled last Saturday, there are no fresh injuries for the Chiefs to report, meaning they will be able to pick from a large pool of players for their lineup this weekend. Nancy McGillivray, Jodie Ounsley and Hope Rogers are all still out with long term injuries, with Hope Rogers looking to return in a ‘small number of weeks”.