Two international matches masquerading as club games. The very best in English rugby was on view at two sites in London across one afternoon. But, as I suspected all along, it will be the same two sides who compete in the final at Gloucester next weekend.
Harlequins v Wasps
Wasps were simply not allowed to impose their game on Quins for long enough to register their first win over them in the Premier 15s. Like several England sides you may have seen recently, they had one better half – the second – but were playing catch-up after letting Quins stride away in the first.
Wasps lost their first line-out in the third minute; it was not to be their last. When you have Amy Cokayne and Abbie Ward providing the surest link in this department, you can’t afford to waste such vital possession.
Ten minutes in, and a typical series of Quins’ pick-and-goes allowed Ellie Green to pot a penalty. (3-0) A high tackle by Lagi Tuima on Kate Alder let Wasps advance to Quins’ 22, but they couldn’t exploit the position.
Up to the first water-break there had been plenty of endeavour, but few flashes of brilliance. Defences held strong.
More accuracy at a Quins’ line-out led to another set of drives, this one finished off by Vickii Cornborough, whose work in the loose gets better with every passing season. Green converted. (8-0)
Wasps repeated their failings: after another kick to the corner; a line-out was overthrown and possession lost.
As you might expect, they were finding far less space than in the previous round against Bristol; even their threatening back three, Quansah-Dow-Kildunne, could make little headway. When possession was turned over, often by Shaunagh Brown’s efforts, Leanne Riley could find acute angles for her kicks, or the midfield would make useful ground.
Maud Muir, who had a fine game in the No 3 shirt, covered herself in glory when she caught Jess Breach on one of her top-speed raids and forced her into touch.
But the moment came for the 2,000 crowd to get their money’s worth: clean off the top by Ward, the ball spun into midfield to Tuima; she threatened damage but then offered a totally unexpected off-load to Breach as she came screaming through the centre. This turned into another golden Breach try, as she switched direction past Sammy Wong trying to cover. Green converted. 15-0.
Once again Wasps tried to revert to their quick handling game; once again they were harried into error.
Quins responded with a repeat of their opening score – a series of punishing drives and a penalty for Green.
Wasps still weren’t able to force their game on the opposition after the turn-round. A telling moment came when Cokayne spotted a pass coming and intercepted; she sprinted deep into the enemy half, but Wasps regathered to save the day; Kildunne cleared to the half-way line.
With Quins winning most of the collisions, their backs had more space to move in. Emily Scott made an outstanding run down the left channel to keep the opposition on the back foot. But Wasps were resilient; they regained possession, cleared their ground, then found themselves stringing moves together.
They showed confidence by opting for a scrum, then won a penalty plus another 10 metres as Riley hung on to the ball. The upshot was a series of drives at the line. To show how their normal methods were being distorted, the forward who twisted, turned and thrust her way over the line under the posts was Dow! Flo Williams converted. (18-7)
This was their chance to turn the tables, but Quins were having none of it. Instead, they built another menacing attack. As the ball swung right into the centre, the master-passer, Rachael Burford, suddenly gave a reverse to Breach who cut through the middle again to score under the posts. This was the sort of move Wasps had been producing all season; today it was Quins who showed the fancy hands. (25-7)
Breach’s game took a sharp turn for the worse as Wasps countered. At last Dow had the ball on the right wing close to the line. Tuima and Breach both dived in to tackle her; she was forced into touch inches short. Breach came off worst in the collision; she left the field on a stretcher to warm applause. An ankle injury was feared.
Wasps can at least claim they posted the last score: another series of drives saw Andrea Stock, recently on in the front row, dive over.
Result: Quins 25 Wasps 14
Player of the Match: Leanne Riley
Quins: Scott; Wilcock, Tuima, Burford (C), Breach; Green, Riley; Cornborough, Cokayne, Brown; Ward, Fletcher; Brooks, Mew, Beckett
Bench: Dobson, Edwards, Robinson, Mayhew, Viksten, Eddie, L. Packer, Cowell
Wasps: Kildunne; Dow, Burton, Alder (C), Quansah; Williams, Wong; West, Moloney, Muir; Burnfield, Mooney, Crake, Kabeya, Millar-Mills
Bench: Stock, Ransley, Monaghan, Balogun, Molloy, Mason, Mitchelson, Edwards
Referee: Nick Wood
ARs: James Clarke and Katherine Ritchie
Saracens v Loughborough Lightning
If Lightning were supposed to be the rank outsiders, they put the doubters in the wrong by stretching Sarries to the utmost in Hendon. They started at full pelt, repossessing fast and using all their units to stretch Sarries’ defences. They had the nerve to score their first try with a driven maul (try to Lark Davies – hardly needs mentioning, her 20th this season) straight out of the Saracens’ guide book.
But that book also commands: ‘Respond immediately!’ So Poppy Cleall drove over at the other end.
Emily Scarratt made amends for missing out on a 40 metre penalty by offering Rhona Lloyd a magnificent no-look pass for her to race through the middle to the line.
Over the rest of the game the Clealls took it in turns to score; they finished with two each. .
While we were busy admiring the contest between the two best English No 10s, Harrison and Rowland, Poppy Cleall finished the first half with her own version of fly-half play, a cross kick for Rachel Laqeretabua. It didn’t quite work.
After the break Sarries reasserted their authority, combining efficiently across the field. They moved into a 28-19 lead, but got no further. Lightning stuck to their task admirably, Davies hoisting her 21st try of the season, to finish a mere three behind Kelly Smith’s record of 24.
Around the 60-minute mark Lightning built a multi-phase attack of huge intensity and variety. Rowland almost put Lloyd away on the left, but in the end a delayed Jess Weaver pass allowed Sarries to get their hands on the ball again. and their backs threatened.
Lightning gained a late advantage when Vicky Fleetwood was yellowed for a tackle off the ball, and they exploited it. Bryony Field finished off a determined drive to the line. But time had run out.
The England selectors, present at both matches, will have been pleased with the overall standards, but concerned at injuries to important players, Breach and O’Donnell to name but two. Helena Rowland gave another display of all-round brilliance with hand, foot and brain. But she was matched by the ever cool Zoe Harrison.
Result: Saracens 28 Loughborough Lightning 24
Player of the Match: Sophie de Goede
Saracens: McKenna; Laqeretabua, Gregson, Casey, Clapp (C),; Harrison, Swords; Botterman, Campbell, B. Cleall; De Goede, Taylor; Fleetwood, M. Packer, P. Cleall
Bench: Rettie, Clark, Rose, Galligan, Evans, Hayward, Aitchison, Hayward
Loughborough Lightning: Goulden; Vistisen, Scarratt, Hardy, Lloyd; Rowland, Davey; D. Harper, Davies, Menin; Duguid, O’Donnell; Wassell, Malcom (C), Hunter
Bench: Field, Bartlett, Bourke, A. Harper, Noon, Weaver, Tasker, Jones
Referee: Nikki O’Donnell
ARs: Daniel Rowlands and Michael Woods
with thanks to rugbyreferee.net
So the final will be between Saracens and Harlequins at Kingsholm Gloucester on May 30, KO 4 pm
The one unexpected detail across the two games was Loughborough outshining Wasps. When they are at or near full strength, as they were at the StoneX, they look a truly formidable unit. This was their third tight game against the champions in a row. Once again, the difference between them was the name Cleall. For all Wasps’ endeavours, spectators at the Stoop never had the feeling they could carry the day.
It was sad to hear that both Katie Mason and Sarah Mitchelson are minded to retire at the season’s end. Mason showed her great range of skills by coming on at No 9 and upping her team’s intensity. Last week she scored a hat-trick on the wing. Unusually, Giselle Mather had opted for a 6/2 split in favour of forwards, no doubt in readiness for the pressure the Quins’ pack would bring to bear. Mitchelson has been playing for the club for thirteen seasons, an outstanding servant to the cause. Once a Wasp, …
Radio Leicester were interested spectators at the Lightning game. The commentator gave his Leicester-slanted view of things, hoping Lightning could soon be seen playing at Welford Road. That would offer them the sort of spotlight they deserve.
He was less impressed when Cath O’Donnell had to limp off the field on crutches. Where was the stretcher?