This first day of the new PWR league got off to the loudest publicity blast yet offered England’s elite league.
Bristol Bears 48 Sale Sharks 5
Saracens 48 Loughborough Lightning 7
Trailfinders Women 17 Harlequins 22
and Sunday 19:
Leicester Tigers v Exeter Chiefs KO 15.00
Bristol v Sale
Abbie Ward appeared at Ashton Gate bearing baby Hallie in her arms.
It took only four minutes for the TMO to make an intervention leading to our first card. But it was a less familar infringement: Hollie Bawden grabbed Phoebe Murray’s arm as she ran past her; Murray dropped the pass offered her a moment later.
The inevitable outcome was a try to Lark Atkin-Davies, sitting comfortably on the back of a rolling maul.
Inside ten minutes Reneeqa Bonner, one of England U18’s bright lights, was over for Bears’ second, brilliantly completed with a spin under pressure.
Was Ward’s try inevitable? It came after a series of fumbles, none of which took the ball forward. She was left on her own, a metre from the line. She doesn’t miss from there. 19-0
Lucy Burgess was on the end of another lovely combined move by the Bears. She skipped and hopped and was over. 26-0
Dave Ward replaced English players before half-time, no doubt a pre-planned move. Consequence: Sale got off the mark via a cross-kick from Katana Howard to skipper Lauren Delany. Try to Beatrice Rigoni from close in. She was delighted to make her mark on English rugby.
That was the break: 26-5 and the vital bonus point in the bag for the Bears
Now it was Phoebe Murray’s turn to complete a flowing move, characterised by long accurate passes to stretch defences.
Many more replacements followed, Amber Reed moving to No 10. Two more Bears’ tries came from rolling mauls; first to LA-D, then, after she was replaced, by Jess Sprague. This try was preceded by another long break by Simi Pam. Alycia Washington paid for it with a yellow card at the breakdown.
Another one to add to your Christmas collection.
Ella Lovibond’s try came on the end of two scrums that Sale couldn’t hold. Flowing passes were a delight to watch.
In last five minutes Sale showed themselves at their best, but the gap in class was plain to see from early on.
Player of the Match: Phoebe Murray. She remains a leading figure in the group who ask: ‘What have I done to be overlooked by England?’
Saracens v Loughborough Lightning
On four minutes the game was lit up by a dazzling reverse pass from Leanne Infante to Sophie De Goede who ran in unopposed under the posts, her first try since her return to the colours.
But this game had to have cards too: skipper Lotte Clapp was punished with a yellow only three minutes later.
Lightning got into the game when they retrieved a scrum ball, despite being driven back at pace. Chloe Rollie ran into a Clapp-shaped gap to set up a big raid on the line. Sarries conceded a series of penalties that forced the referee to send Coreen Grant to the bin for off-side. Sarries were now the wingless wonders. To the home crowd’s discomfort they were soon behind; Rachel Malcolm went over from a tap. 5-7
Sarries are used to setbacks like this, and they know how to recover. A series of powerful drives saw De Goede complete a raid.
Infante now showed why she should always be England’s first-choice scrum-half. She wandered across field behind a maul then suddenly accelerated through an invisible gap, to trot in under the posts.
Helen Nelson was the victim.
Poppy Cleall was the next to see yellow, Sarries’ third. But for all Lightning’s good works – Helena Rowland a constant danger – they had areas that refused to work properly. As so often it was the line-out throw at fault. Despite enterprising rugby they were ten points adrift.
Sadly the weakness was repeated. They established an attacking position, but the throw did for them.
Now came a big moment: two of the biggest names returned to action. Zoe Harrison had been out
since February with an ACL. Alongside her trotted the England skipper – such are Sarries’ strengths.
Standing in for ZH, young Amelia MacDougall had looked quite at home. Harrison’s first action was to kick the ball about 100 metres and win an attacking penalty.
When Cleall returned, Sarries were awarded a penalty try, though Packer may think she deserved the honour. Now it was Kate Trevarthen’s turn to see yellow. Will a new record be established this season for the most cards in a single match? Oh, and the referee still had time to send Cath O’Donnell from the field. We must be close to that record.
Lightning have so much potential, but it’s the weaknesses that count, that line-out and the inability to win the ruck on the end of a good raid. It was May Campbell who came away with the ball after one such blast at the hosts’ line.
Instead Sarries performed their usual trick, adding two fine tries through Cleall and Jess Breach to equal the Bears’ total earlier in the day.
Bears: 15 Lovibond 14 Bonner 13 Murray 12 Reed (c-c) 11 Wills 10 Aitchison 9 Burgess 1 Botterman 2 Atkin-Davies 3 Bern 4 Burns 5 Ward (c-c) 6 Butchers 7 Johnes 8 Nigrelli
Bench: 16 Sprague 17 E. Marston-Mulhearn 18 Cunningham 19 R Marston-Mulhearn 20 Wythe 21 Bevan 22 Varley 23 Hesketh
Sharks: 15 Perrin 14 Delaney (captain) 13 Rigoni 12 Howard 11 Bawden 10 Law 9 Taylor-Roberts 1 Benson 2 Swailes 3 Harper 4 Tounesi 5 Antwis 6 J. Brown 7 McLachlan 8 Hazell
Bench: 16 Kelly 17 Young 18 Washington 19 Talling 20 Grieve 21 VA Irwin 22 Prothero
Referee: Neil Chivers
ARs: Calum Howard and James Cornell
Comment: only four sets of officials needed this season, yet only one female referee and no ARs for Round One.
Trailfinders v Quins
This was Trailfinders’ big day, what they termed the Take-off. On balance, they can claim they did themselves proud, going down to an ever-ambitious Quins by a single score. Proud, because Ellie Green nudged them into an early lead with a penalty, and their Kiwi signing, Shannon Ikahihifo, was shown a red card inside the first half-hour. Her tackle was too high.
Scottish cap Liz Musgrove had the honour of scoring their first ever PWR try. Later Ella Amory scored a second, and they even took the lead 17-12, but Quins had just enough petrol in the tank to move five points ahead.
Looked at from the reverse angle, this performance cannot be seen as a good omen for Quins for the rest of the season. They failed to make the knock-out stages last time, so steps should surely have been taken to avoid a repeat. They have yet to accrue, TF gaining a losing bonus point.
The Anguish and the Ecstasy
You could see the conflicting emotions by setting a photo of a radiant Giselle Mather against the moving statement posted by Jo Yapp, once the trusted DoR of Worcester Warriors. ‘Today we would have been running out…’, but they didn’t.
Today Mather saw all her hard work coming to fruition as Trailfinders Women ran out for the first time. But she too had known disappointment similar to Yapp’s. Across last season player after player left Wasps as the ship foundered. Then she too was gone.
As you glance down the players’ lists, you’ll spot former Wasps and Warriors players spread to the four winds. Two familiar names were in direct opposition, Abby Dow (TF) and Ellie Kildunne (Quins). Two years ago they formed part of the best women’s back-line I’ve seen at club level, playing for Wasps.
The Big Question
Will the new PWR be able to overcome the past weaknesses of massive differences in player strength and funding? I fear the answer will prove to be no. I have yet to see a comment from the PWR board pointing to a more equable division of resources whether it be from benevolent individuals or large companies.