Match report: Chiefs Women 29 Bristol Women 14
Exeter Chiefs Women 29
Bristol Bears Women 14
Caroline Moore at Sandy Park
All the chat before the game was about Bristol’s recruitment, notably, their all-England front-row and their new fly-half Holly Aitchison, but Chiefs proved they were more than equal to the task ahead with the home crowd right behind them.
It looked like the hype around the visitors was appropriate with Bristol enjoying the lion’s – maybe bear’s – share of the possession in the first five minutes. They kicked a penalty to touch for a lineout before a quick-tap penalty resulted in a try for No 8 Gabriella Nigrelli that was converted by Aitchison.
But, and a big but, Chiefs were not going to be muscled out of this game so easily. Their first lineout was not the cleanest take in the world, but they still had the ball! Maisy Allen got involved to create some space and Chiefs were starting to make ground. What looked like a high tackle on wing Katie Buchanan went unnoticed but again precious possession was being retained and Chiefs were beginning to pin Bristol in their own 22.
As scrums began to be awarded for knock-ons, everyone was waiting for that Bristol dominance to make a difference, but we have got some pretty good Canadians in that front-row and some decent strength behind them with No 8 Rachel Johnson peeling off one of Chiefs’ solid scrums to press the point.
Meanwhile, a messy rolling maul from a Bristol lineout gave Chiefs another chance at the scrum. This one saw England winger Claudia MacDonald move into space, with her teammates right behind her. Buchanan came close as the home side ramped up the pressure. However, it was the lineout and a rather tidier rolling maul that saw hooker Emily Tuttosi level the scores in the 20th minute. Her try was converted by centre Gabby Cantorna to mark her 50th game for the club.
It was not just the forwards who were playing their part. Scrum-half Brooke Bradley was all over her opposite number Lucy Burgess to make her feel a little uncomfortable at Sandy Park. Buchanan was also making her presence known with some scathing runs that did not make Bristol feel welcome either! A sweet kick from Lori Cramer to Buchanan gave Chiefs the territory to keep pushing towards the try-line and it was difficult to see if a try had been scored before the TMO stepped in to award Johnson the try and to make the half-time score 14-7.
It was Johnson who got the first try in the second half after another, you’ve guessed it, a lineout and rolling maul. Two tries ahead after 43 minutes gone.
Johnson’s influence on the game seemed to build. Her rampaging runs, matched by the great strides from Linde van der Velden, swerving runs from Claudia MacDonald, and touchline kicking from Alex Tessier (plus a bonus kick to the corner from Bradley) were testing Bristol’s resolve.
A penalty from Cantorna in the 56th minute gave Chiefs some crucial extra points as they headed towards the final quarter 24-7 up at the same time as Bristol began to make a comeback. Sarah Bern was excellent all day, most noticeably in the loose. Chiefs were throwing in the tackles to reclaim control and when Aitchison makes a break into the Chiefs half it looked like replacement scrum-half Keira Bevan was away, but she fumbled the ball and was penalised for holding on. The Chiefs crowd could breathe again!
Bristol did get back on the scoreboard. Maybe taking a leaf out of the Chiefs’ playbook, Bristol converted their own lineout and maul for Bern to score. Aitchison converted and the scoreline was 24-14. Meanwhile, Demi Swann was shown a yellow card for hair pulling.
With 10 minutes to go, Chiefs were down to 14 women and the tension was palpable. Chiefs maintained their excellent defence and when they had the chance for another lineout-maul situation, they sucked it in with glee, and some accurate passing released MacDonald down the wing for the bonus-point try.
The final whistle was quick to follow along with the cheers from the supporters in the East Terrace as they celebrated a statement win from Chiefs.
Exeter Chiefs Women: L Cramer; C MacDonald, M Doidge (vc), G Cantorna, K Buchanan; A Tessier, B Bradley (M McDonald 70mins); D Swann, E Tuttosi (C Neilson 80mins), D Menin (L Hanlon 57mins), L van der Velden (N Fryday 62mins (A Middlebrooke 75mins)), P Leitch, E Jefferies (H Millar-Mills 62mins), M Allen (M Feaunati 70mins), R Johnson.
Rep not used: S Langford
Tries: Tuttosi, Johnson (2), MacDonald
Cons: Cantorna (3)
Yellow card: D Swann
Bristol Bears Women: E Lovibond (J Hesketh 71mins); R Bonner, P Murray, M Smith (M Varley 57mins), D Wills; H Aitchison, L Burgess, (K Bevan 57mins); H Botterman (S Pam 51mins (H Botterman 79mins), L Atkin-Davies (L Skeldon 62mins), S Bern (E Clarke 71mins), D Burns, A Ward (c) (H Cunningham 62mins), E Gallagher, A Butchers, G Nigrelli R Marston-Mulhearn 51mins)
Tries: Nigrelli, Bern
Cons: Aitchison (2)
Referee: Anthony Woodthorpe