Chiefs Women 17 Loughborough Lightning 12
Exeter Chiefs Women 17
Loughborough Lightning 12
Harry Scott-Munro at Sandy Park
Susie Appleby’s Exeter Chiefs Women’s side kept alive their hopes of a play-off place in this season’s Allianz Premier 15s by claiming another prized scalp at Sandy Park.
Having already bagged wins against Saracens, Harlequins and Wasps during their maiden season, the Devonians made it a clean sweep of the top four by defeating a star-studded Loughborough Lightning outfit, which included England captain Sarah Hunter and reigning World Player of the Year, Emily Scarratt.
A dominant first half display from the Chiefs paved the way for their latest success as Laura Sheehan and Rachel Johnson both crossed for tries, which were converted by Gabby Cantorna who also added a penalty.
After the break, it was then the turn of the Chiefs defence to take charge as they had to withstand a strong fightback from the Midlanders, who countered with tries of their own from Helena Rowland and Megan Davey.
On a bitter Saturday afternoon in the Westcountry, Appleby’s side headed into this latest fixture knowing that anything other than a win would end any hope of a late season push for the play-offs.
Defeat against Saracens last time out had been a tough one to take for Appleby’s side, but they were keen to show their resilience in their penultimate home game of the season.
In a week where Irish winger Sheehan was one of five Chiefs players named in their respective international squads for the upcoming Six Nations Championship, she started her first game for her new side in the only change to the starting XV from the Saracens match, Niamh Terry reverting to the bench.
For Loughborough, they arrived at Sandy Park off the back of a 36-14 defeat to top four rivals Wasps, but were buoyed by the return of captain Hunter, playing her first match since round three against Bristol Bears.
In a frenetic opening exchange, it was the visitors that had the better of the play, setting their stall out in the Chiefs half, only for a knock-on to cut their opportunity short.
It prompted the Chiefs to start to show their hand, several blistering breaks from both Olivia DeMerchant and McKinley Hunt taking them deep within the Loughborough 22 and drawing a penalty from the visitors, coolly dispatched by Cantorna to open up an early advantage.
Despite their early flurry of possession, the visitors struggled to regain the momentum against a ferocious Chiefs defence. They had their chances, after several Chiefs knock-ons, but every time they were met by a fiercely competitive effort at the breakdown, which saw the hosts either regain possession or win a penalty.
The ferocity in defence then seamlessly transferred itself into attack as, from a line-out, the ball was fed to Canadian forward Hunt, who galloped past Rowland and into the Lightning 22. After Loughborough were penalised at the ruck, the Chiefs forwards game came to the fore, firstly Sachiko Kato muscling her way to within inches of the line, before Johnson burrowed over for her sixth try of the season, Cantorna converting to open up a 10-0 advantage.
The Chiefs continued to create chances and work their way into the Lightning 22, only for handling errors in the face of several monstrous hits from Loughborough, let them down in the red zone.
As the game continued, the physicality on display began to show, with both teams having to fight hard for every inch as defence began to dominate.
Midway through the half, Loughborough had an opportunity to set themselves up for a prime attacking opportunity after Chiefs were penalised at the breakdown, only for Rowland to uncharacteristically kick the ball dead.
The hosts, though, were to have the final say in the opening half, winger Sheehan crossing for her first in a Chiefs jersey with the clock in the red.
From a line-out, Chiefs continued their industrious attacking play, Hunt and Cantorna both coming within inches of the Loughborough line, before the visitors stayed offside. With a penalty advantage on her side, fly-half Patricia Garcia spotted space in-behind, placing a delicate grubber kick through for Sheehan to race onto and dot down. Cantorna’s excellent conversion from the touchline opened up a 17-point advantage.
Chiefs continued to apply the pressure, a clever kick from Garcia hemming Lightning deep in their 22, only for the clock to beat the hosts, the referee signalling an end to the first half.
HALF-TIME: EXETER CHIEFS 17 LOUGHBOROUGH LIGHTNING 0
A team of the quality of Loughborough were never going to lie down and they emerged energised in the second-half, playing with the notorious Sandy Park wind at their backs.
Handling errors for the Chiefs began to creep into their game. Whereas passes had stuck in the first-half, this time they didn’t, allowing Loughborough to utilise the strength of their ball carriers to keep the pressure on their rivals.
The hosts defence was up to the task in the early stages of the second-half, Kato and replacement Laura Delgado popping up with numerous chop-tackles when Loughborough looked to be threatening the line.
It was, however, going to take something special to break the Chiefs defence and it came in the form of prop DeLeaka Menin. After an inch-perfect pass from Rowland had taken a whole host of Chiefs defenders out of the game, the Canadian prop burst through the line, drawing full-back Doidge and feeding replacement scrum-half Davey for the score.
Scarratt duly converted to ensure maximum reward for the visitors, who continued to apply the pressure. Thankfully, the Chiefs were remain strong in defence, digging deep into their reserves to keep their rivals at bay.
Indeed, with the clock winding down, Garcia found Sheehan on the right wing in space, the winger burst through several tackles, but it wasn’t to be as a breakdown penalty allowed Loughborough one final opportunity to snatch a losing bonus-point, which that they duly took.
From the initial rolling maul, Chiefs were guilty of collapsing as the Loughborough drive took them to within inches of the line. Knowing the advantage was with her side, Rowland took the ball on the blindside, showing some fancy footwork to step the defender and dive over in the corner and secure what could be a vital losing bonus point in the final shake-up.
Chiefs: M Doidge; L Sheehan; K Zackary, G Cantorna, G Mackinder; P Garcia, F Robinson (M Davies 64); O DeMerchant (L Delgado 26) E Tuttosi, S Kato (M Roberts 64); P Leitch, M Hunt; E Jefferies, R Johnson (A Fleming 64) L van der Velden (capt). Replacements (not used): J Kitlinski, D French, N Terry, L Burgess
Tries: Sheehan, Johnson; Conversions: Cantorna (2); Penalty: Cantorna
Lightning: L Goulden (N Vistisen 43); O Jones, E Scarratt, E Hardy, I Alejandro; H Rowland, E Wyrwas (M Davey 43); D Harper, L Davies, D Menin; A Duguid (G Bourke 57) C O’Donnell; K Trevarthen (B Field 57) B. Noon, S Hunter (capt, M. Meuller 35). Replacements (not used) B Fowler, E Ramsbottom, G Tasker
Tries: Rowland, Davey; Conversion: Scarratt
Referee: H Grant