Saracens Women 43 Chiefs Women 21
Saracens Women 43
Exeter Chiefs Women 21
Harry Scott-Munro at Sixways
In the end, it was just one game too far for Susie Appleby and her Exeter Chiefs squad.
After a season of huge promise, it was Saracens - who on Jubilee Weekend - reigned supreme, claiming the Allianz Premier 15s crown with a powerful display at Sixways.
The Londoners scored six tries in all, as Marlie Packer helped herself to a double, with further scores from Vicky Fleetwood, Mackenzie Carson, May Campbell and Alysha Corrigan all crossed, with Alev Kelter adding 13 points from the tee.
The Chiefs - who were having their first-ever crack at claiming the league title - responded with tries from Jennine Detiveaux, Ebony Jefferies and Patricia Garcia in her final game before retiring, as Gabby Cantorna added two conversions and Meg Foster a third, but it was just too much of an ask to turn the tide.
The Chiefs fans travelled in their droves and roared their side on throughout, as the synergy between players and fans that has been developed this season carried on to the biggest stage of all.
In a frenetic opening few minutes, it was the Chiefs who set out their stall, with a series of robust carries as they launched their way into the Saracens 22. The Londoners, though, are seasoned campaigners at this level and didn’t finish at the top of the table by accident. Indeed, led by the relentless Packer in the back-row, they secured a penalty at the breakdown that set the tone for the rest of the first half.
For all Exeter’s endeavour, Saracens were the side to open the scoring, as they used the speed of ball to their advantage, to puncture the Exeter defence. In truth, England pair Packer and Poppy Cleall were outstanding on the day, and it was Packer who opened the scoring from close range as, after an initial surge forward from Hannah Botterman, the experienced No.8 found her way over the line.
Saracens were relentless and in the face of a black wall of defenders, Exeter’s powerful driving maul was struggling to make its usual inroads. The Londoners were attacking at will, with the Chiefs in desperate need of a spark. They found it through the reliable source of Detiveaux, as the live-wire USA Eagle showed the need for speed, racing clear from deep inside her own 22 up to halfway, to relieve the pressure.
Saracens though were still attacking at will, with the Chiefs living off scraps in truth. Opportunities were few and far between and when one did finally arrive with a line-out inside the Saracens 22, the set-piece sadly went astray.
Then, off of a halfway scrum, Saracens would fire through the middle of Chiefs defence thanks to a lightning break from Cleall. Exeter would defend resolutely, stopping the Saracens attack in its tracks but the pressure would eventually tell, as Fleetwood spotted a gap and muscled over.
Appleby’s side needed a response and quickly. Thankfully, they would hit back soon after thanks to Garcia. The Spaniard may have been playing her last-ever game of professional rugby, but she showed that her rugby understanding was as good as ever.
Once DaLeaka Menin had punctured the Saracens defence, Chiefs continued to press and probe, drawing a penalty from the referee’s whistle. Garcia is an experienced campaigner and took the penalty quickly, showing dexterity and ingenuity to wriggle over the line and reduce the deficit.
Seemingly back in the contest, the Chiefs were hoping to kick on further. Saracens, though, had other ideas and hit back almost immediately as Kelter landed a routine penalty, punishing the Devonians for not rolling away at the tackle.
Down by ten at this stage, Appleby would happily have taken that score at the turn. However, it was Sarries who hit their rivals with a sucker punch in the final minute of the half, Packer crossing from close range, after Cleall and Campbell linked up to take play back into the Chiefs 22, before the Saracens pack kept it tight to wrestle over from close range.
HALF-TIME SCORE: SARACENS 24 EXETER CHIEFS 7
Any hopes of a fast start in the second half were swiftly extinguished, as Saracens scored their fourth less than a minute into the second half.
It came from a bobbling ball at the restart, as Exeter were unable to gather possession back, allowing Saracens to build momentum and possession in the Exeter 22. After Cleall had gone close, the ball was worked wide to Carson to dart over, with Kelter again extending the advantage.
Trailing by 24 points, Exeter refused to give up, as they looked to hit back. With Jefferies, Gabby Senft and McKinley Hunt making an impact off the bench and upping the momentum, their energy seemed to spur their team-mates on, with Hope Rogers barrelling through Saracens players at will.
Saracens were panicking now, as the penalties began to mount, and the referee’s warning came. The Chiefs continued to pile on the pressure with Rogers crashing up towards the line, only to be held up agonisingly by the Saracens defence.
Exeter wouldn’t have to wait long though, as the impressive Jefferies burst free down the right wing, leaving swathes of Saracens defenders in her wake.
With the wait of the Chiefs attacking pressure beginning to tell, they wouldn’t have to wait long for the score. First, Cantorna scythed through a gap in midfield, finding Hunt on her inside. The Canadian managed to find Garcia on her inside, with the Spaniard setting Detiveaux free to race in for a superb team try.
Saracens though, powered into contact again, looking to kill of the game as a contest. It was the tight game around the fringes that again did the damage, as Campbell eventually managed to scramble over, despite a heroic defensive double shot from Merryn Doidge and Kate Zackary.
There was a brief moment of pause to follow, as the entire stadium and indeed, the rugby world, stood to applaud Garcia, as she made her way off the field for the final time as a professional player.
Saracens though, were in no mood for sentimentality, as Corrigan soon scored her side’s sixth and final try of the afternoon, showing good game sense to regather the ball after being tackled, to weave her way over.
It was at this point that Appleby unloaded the bench, with the likes of McGillivray and Senft adding a new level of physicality to the contest in impressive cameos. McGillivray herself would put a crunching hit in on Hannah Casey to flatten the Irish international and, it was from there that the Chiefs would build momentum to score their final try of the match.
As Saracens again continued to give up penalties at a rate of knots, the Chiefs kicked to the corner and looked to set the drive.
It was replacement Jefferies who would have the final say in the encounter, as she peeled off the back of the maul to race over, with Foster expertly converting from the touchline.
The Chiefs would continue to press and probe but a last-gasp effort to find a fourth and final score would end with an intercept, allowing Aitchison to let the ball bounce dead and see out the match.
Whilst this may have proved to be Saracens’ day, take nothing away from this Chiefs side who, in only their second season, came so close to securing an historic double.
Having now experienced the demands of a Premiership final, there is no doubt that all in the squad will be hungrier than ever next season, as they look to take the final step.
Saracens: S McKenna; A Corrigan (T Vaughan-Fowler 77), C Wardle (H Casey 67), A Kelter, L Clapp (co-capt); H Aitchison, E Wyrwas (A Goddard 77); H Botterman (D Rose 76), M Campbell (K Evans 76), K Clifford (A Ellis 52); F Mcintosh, P Cleall (S Green 76); M Carson (G Evans 67), V Fleetwood, M Packer (co-capt).
Tries - Packer (2), Fleetwood, Carson, Campbell, Corrigan; Conversions - Kelter (5); Penalty - Kelter
Chiefs: M Doidge; E Sinclair, K Kobayashi, G Cantorna (N McGillivray 67), J Detiveaux; P Garcia (M Foster 62), F Robinson (B Bradley 67);H Rogers, E Tuttosi (C Nielson 66), D Menin (M Roberts 73); N Fryday (M Hunt 46), L van der Velden (E Jefferies 46), P Leitch (co-capt), R Johnson (G Senft 66), K Zackary (co-capt).
Tries - Garcia, Detiveaux, Jefferies; Conversions - Cantorna (2), Foster
Referee: H Walbaum