Chiefs Women 22 Saracens Women 14
Exeter Chiefs Women 22
Saracens Women 14
Harry Scott-Munro at Sandy Park
With bitter conditions and pelting rain at Sandy Park, Exeter Chiefs Women put in a performance to warm the hearts of their supporters as they inflicted a first defeat in over two years on Saracens, securing a heroic 22-14 victory over the two-time Allianz Premier 15s champions.
Tries from Poppy Leitch, Kate Zackary and debutant Rachel Johnson, along with two conversions and a penalty from Gabby Cantorna, were just reward for a heroic team performance that highlighted just how far they have come since the start of the season.
Ahead of kick-off, head coach Susie Appleby made two changes to the starting XV from her side’s last match against Bristol Bears. Flo Robinson replaced the suspended Patricia Garcia at scrum-half, while Olivia DeMerchant started in place of Laura Delgado at prop.
On a testing surface, both sides played an expansive and enterprising opening few minutes with Saracens fly-half Holly Aitchison and the impressive Robinson, for the Chiefs, keeping the tempo high.
It was, however, the Chiefs backline that seemed to be the ones to get themselves on the front foot first, with Taylor Black’s supreme composure with ball in hand, allowing her to feed captain Linde van der Velden on the gainline, allowing the No.8 to gallop through a shell-shocked Saracens defence.
The Chiefs kept the pressure on and seemed to have the visitors on the backfoot every time they carried with ball in hand. With Saracens penalised at the breakdown, Chiefs set about their task of searching for an opening score that their performance warranted.
An initial surge from the rolling maul was stopped well by Saracens, but Chiefs were not to be denied as, after several strong carries around the fringes from the pack, Leitch rumbled over for her first score in a Chiefs jersey.
This seemed to spur the home side on even further as their enterprising start in attack continued. From the restart, the ball made its way out to Zackary, who raced through the Saracens defence and fed Garnet Mackinder on halfway. The visitors seemed to be at sixes and sevens but were spared more agony as Chiefs were pulled back for crossing by referee Adam Wookey.
A key theme this season for the Chiefs has been their unrelenting pressure in defence and today’s performance was no different, as they hustled Saracens at the breakdown and forced the visitors off their feet. This allowed American centre Cantorna to nail a long-range penalty and open up an 8-0 advantage for her side.
Even the mid-half pause for the drinks break couldn’t halt Appleby’s side as they picked up where they’d left off, with the rampaging Sachiko Kato showing the sort of pace and handling that any back would be proud of.
It wasn’t until the 27th minute that Saracens had their first sniff at the Chiefs line. Again though, the Chiefs physicality of the Chiefs pack was there for all to see, as they secured a turnover from the maul, allowing Robinson to hammer the ball downfield.
Moments later, Saracens were back on the Chiefs line after a superb kick in-behind from England full-back Sarah McKenna. With the visitors hammering at the home line, Cantorna produced another superb turnover, ripping the ball away from Hannah Casey on the line and securing a penalty to clear her lines.
And there was to be time for one last moment of heroic try-line defence for the Chiefs as, right on half-time, DeMerchant popped up with a timely intervention to stop Saracens when again, the try-line was begging.
HALF-TIME: EXETER CHIEFS WOMEN 8 SARACENS WOMEN 0
Saracens came out for the second half determined to claw their way back into the game, a pinpoint kick from Chantelle Miell pegging Chiefs back into their 22 early in the second half.
Chiefs though, kept their composure and worked their way up-field, as Saracens ill-discipline started to cost them. An arching run from Merryn Doidge created panic in the Saracens ranks, before another breakdown penalty allowed Cantorna to set up a prime attacking opportunity for the Chiefs.
An overthrown line-out from Emily Tuttosi was read by Marlie Packer and the opportunity looked to have been lost. However, with the rain getting even stronger, Zackary leapt through the air to charge down Aitchison’s clearance kick, showing all her experience to gather the bouncing ball over the try-line and ground it for her side’s second, Cantorna converting to open up a 15-0 lead.
Saracens were always going to show their class eventually and they did just that in the 51st minute, captain Lottie Clapp picking a superb line off Aitchison to race through, rounding the final defender to cross the whitewash and reduce the deficit to 15-7.
The visitors had their tails up and were sensing an opportunity to further close the deficit to the Chiefs. A penalty for a high tackle seemed to have given Aitchison an opportunity to set up an attacking lineout for her side deep in the Chiefs 22, only for Doidge to leap through the air and keep the ball infield for her side, Saracens giving away a penalty as their frustration grew.
Chiefs tenacious ability around the breakdown continued apace, with try-scorer Leitch demonstrating her breakdown prowess with a thunderous hit, before releasing the player and securing a turnover penalty.
With time ticking away, Chiefs looked to set up camp in the Saracens 22 and were so nearly rewarded with a third try, as Zackary burst down the blindside and fed Mackinder out wide. The former Saracen was met by a sea of red shirts and was unable to ground the ball. However, Chiefs were still in the right part of the field with fulltime edging nearer.
Any nerves were washed away with little over three minutes remaining as Chiefs ferocious pressure eventually told. In typical fashion, it again came from the pick and go game, debutant Johnson capping off a perfect afternoon. Cantorna again converted to open up a 22-7 advantage and seemingly but the result beyond doubt.
There was to be one final piece of action from the game, as Saracens secured themselves a consolation score with the clock in the red. A chip over the top from Aitchison caught Exeter out for the first and only time in the afternoon, Cara Wardle sliding in and grounding the ball over the line.
In the grand scheme of things, it made no difference to the result, as Chiefs handed Saracens their first defeat since October 2018.
Chiefs: M Doidge (N Terry 63); L Holland (L Sheehan 64,) L Cattell, G Cantorna, G Mackinder; T Black, F Robinson (M Davies 64); O DeMerchant (L. Delgado 55) E Tuttosi (J Kitlinski 68) S Kato; P Leitch, M Hunt (R Johnson 61) E Jefferies, K Zackary, L van der Velden (capt, A Powell 68)
Tries: Leitch, Zackary, Johnson; Conversions: Cantorna (2); Penalty: Cantorna
Saracens: S McKenna; D Fleming, H Casey (E Swords 60) C Miell (E Uren 49) L Clapp; H Aitchison, E Hayward (C Wardle 61); R Clark (A Zdunek 65) M Campbell, K Clifford (D Rose 44); G Evans (P Cleall 35,) T. Taylor (R Galligan 46); V Fleetwood, M Packer (J Rettie 60) S de Goede
Tries: Clapp, Wardle; Conversions: Aitchison (2)
Referee: A Wookey