A momentous year for women’s rugby in England reaches the highlight in the club season when Saracens take on Harlequins in the Premiers 15s final.
The showdown at Franklin’s Gardens, to be streamed live and free on Youtube by the RFU, pits first versus second in the league table.
Saracens and Quins came through semi-finals against Wasps and Loughborough Lightning, respectively, to set up a repeat of last year’s climax.
Reigning champions Saracens won 17 of their 18 matches during the regular season – their only defeat inflicted by Saturday’s opponents last October when Heather Cowell’s try 13 minutes from time gave Quins victory at the Stoop.
The 20-17 result was met with revenge when the two met again this year, as Saracens won another tightly-contested encounter 31-28 at Allianz Park.
Season records in the Premier 15s for Saracens and Harlequins typify the strength of women’s rugby at club and international level in England, with the Red Roses claiming a Six Nations Grand Slam in February.
And RFU head of women’s performance Nicky Ponsford says the progress of Harlequins to become regular title challengers alongside Saracens is testament to the dedication of their women’s programme.
“The way Quins have supported their women’s team has been fantastic,” Ponsford said.
“They are setting the standards in showing the things we need to put in place to push the game to where we want to see it.
“They’re probably a step ahead of where we are at the moment, maybe two steps ahead.”
The prolific wing duo of Cowell and Jess Breach continue in the Quins back-line, with captain Rachael Burford aiming to lift a first club title to add to her World Cup winners’ medal from 2014 with England.
Head coach Gary Street is forced into making one change from the team which beat Loughborough Lightning.
Back row Shaunagh Brown will miss the clash after undergoing surgery on a hamstring injury, meaning Fiona Fletcher steps into the firefighter’s boots at blindside flanker and Chloe Butler starts in the second row.
Inaugural winners Saracens seek to etch their name onto the trophy again, but will be without the experience of international trio Bryony Cleall, Vicky Fleetwood and Marlie Packer, who are all dealing with injuries.
For Saracens captain Lotte Clapp, the defence of their title starts with shutting down the influence of Jess Breach in attack.
“We have to close Jess down and not allow her to get outside our defence. We know how dangerous she can be,” said Clapp of the fellow winger, who has scored 20 tries in seven international appearances for England.
“Harlequins are a really strong side and we know the game will be close.”
Saracens: 15 Sarah McKenna, 14 Sydney Gregson, 13 Hannah Casey, 12 Lauren Cattell, 11 Lotte Clapp (capt), 10 Zoe Harrison, 9 Georgie Gulliver; 1 El Perry, 2 May Campbell, 3 Hannah Botterman, 4 Sonia Green, 5 Rosie Galligan, 6 Jodie Rettie, 7 Lauren Newman, 8 Poppy Cleall
Replacements: 16 Hannah Duffy, 17 Jeani Layola, 18 Kay Searcy, 19 Sarah Bebbington, 20 Emma Swords, 21 Nina Vistisen, 22 Chantelle Miell
Harlequins: 15 Emily Scott, 14 Heather Cowell, 13 Khadidja Camara, 12 Rachael Burford (capt), 11 Jess Breach, 10 Ellie Green, 9 Leanne Riley; 1 Vickii Cornborough, 2 Davinia Catlin, 3 Chloe Edwards, 4 Abbie Scott, 5 Chloe Butler, 6 Fiona Fletcher, 7 Kristine Sommer, 8 Jade Konkel
Replacements: 16 Leah Lyons, 17 Tove Viksten, 18 Deborah McCormack, 19 Zoe Saynor, 20 Lucy Packer, 21 Holly Myers, 22 Bethany Wilcock
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