Chiefs Women 21 Bears Women 52
It was a tough day at the office for a relatively young and inexperienced Exeter Chiefs side as they went down 21 points to 52, against an impressively fluid Bristol Bears outfit.
The Bears scored two tries in the opening four minutes and the Chiefs never really recovered, always on the back-foot under waves of Bristol pressure.
The home-team battled hard, but ultimately, it was the slick Bears attack that came out on top as they comfortably outscored the current Allianz Cup holders, notching up seven tries in total.
However, there will be plenty of positives for the Chiefs coaches to take from this match, despite the scoreline, with so many youngsters enjoying their first opportunity to take the field at Sandy Park, and a number of inexperienced players putting their hands up.
The game began with a bang!
Right from the off the Bears looked dynamic in the carry and with only 60 seconds on the clock, captain Lucy Burgess found space around the ruck to burst into space, before rounding the last defender and dotting down for the score.
The crowd were still taking their seats when flyer Reneeqa Bonner found herself in space out wide for Bristol. The young winger showed a clean pair of heels and it was two tries in the opening three minutes for the visitors with Exeter still struggling to get out of the sheds.
This Chiefs outfit have built a reputation for having strong foundations, and it was from those roots that they dragged themselves back into the match. Steve Salvin has drilled his pack fiercely throughout the pre-season and after winning a crucial scrum penalty, the Chiefs eight set themselves up with a rolling maul.
There was no stopping it, and the home team powered forward, with referee Dan Jones forced to head under the posts and award a penalty try after Holly Phillips infringed for the visitors. The Bristol Hooker saw ten minutes on the side-lines for the infraction and Chiefs narrowed the gap, 7 points to 12 with only 8 minutes on the clock.
With the player advantage, the Chiefs battered hard at the Bears defence, but small skill errors at crucial moments really halted any momentum they could gather. With so many new combinations on the field, it was clear that players were still finding their place in the attacking game.
Bristol navigated the ten minutes unscathed and it was their centurion, Phoebe Murray who scored the next try, on her 100th appearance. A fantastic break through the midfield saw Murray streak clear from 30 metres out to cap off her milestone with a score, extending the Bristol lead.
The home side, roared on by the usual vocal fans at Sandy Park, weren’t going to go down without a fight, and it was their power game that once again got them back into the match.
From another line-out in Bears territory, Exeter returned to the pick and go game that has proved so potent over the past couple of seasons, and it was the Irish second row, Nichola Fryday who powered her way over, to bring the Chiefs back within five points with less than ten minutes remaining in the half.
It was Bristol who would finish the stronger, dynamic loosehead Simi Pam, who looked threatening with ball in hand all game, bursting through the Exeter tacklers to score under the posts and to give the visitors a good lead at the break.
Half-Time: Chiefs 14 – 26 Bears
The second half began in much the same way as the first, the Bears stringing phases together and exposing Chiefs in the wide channels, this time winger Deborah Wills getting the touchdown.
The Chiefs were under the pump for much of the second half, with plenty of changes made by both teams, but ultimately it was Bristol who proved the more dangerous with ball in hand.
The moment of the half for the home side came when replacement tight head, Hannah Sams, who is just 18 years old, burst through the Bears defence to score her first try for her home club. A moment the youngster will cherish forever.
Bears however, looked threatening whenever they got the ball and they ran in two more tries before the final whistle to solidify a powerful victory on the road.
There were plenty of good performances across the park from this young Chiefs team, Sophie Langford and Danielle Preece looked solid in the midfield, whilst at set-piece the young pack showed real power to assert themselves on the Bears, with standouts from Lizzie Hanlon at tighthead and young Kate Smith who looked impressive off the bench.
The cup competition has always been about learnings for this Exeter side, and no doubt they will regroup under the watchful gaze of head coach Susie Appleby and come back stronger against Sale Sharks in three weeks time.
Chiefs: M Doidge; E Sinclair, F Powdrell (D Preece 40), S Langford, K Buchanan (S Harris 40); L Dadds, E Hayward (O Ortiz 40); A Middlebrooke (P Muzambe 40), C Moloney (C Nielson 62), L Hanlon (H Sams 62); N Fryday (K Smith 60), H Millar-Mills, E Jefferies (J Plant 62), P Leitch ©, N Orchard.
Tries: P Try, N Fryday, H Sams. Conversions: F Powdrell, L Dadds
Bears: E Lovibond; R Bonner, M Varley, P Murray, D Wills; L Skuse, L Burgess ©; S Pam, H Phillips, E Marston-Mulhearn; H Cunningham, D Burns, J Herring, M Jones, G Nigrelli.
Replacements: J Spreague, I Jaques, D Dinapoli, N Beet, C Molloy, E Lewis, M Wilkinson, G Compton
Tries: L Burgess, R Bonner, P Murray, S Pam, D Wills, , C Molloy, I Jaques, G Nigrelli
Conversions: G Nigrelli (6)
Referee: D Jones