A blockbuster in Bear Country: How Bristol edged ahead in play-offs race
The stage was set at a packed-out Shaftesbury Park. Teeming stands bristled with anticipation, as Dings Crusaders hosted crusaders of the quartered variety – and a significant bear hunt loomed. These bears had struggled before Christmas, but now look dangerous once more – metamorphosising from Paddington to grizzly, and roaring their way towards the play-offs.
For Bristol and Harlequins, this was the biggest game of the season so far. Both coaches admitted it: this could well prove a straight shoot-out for that last spot in the semi-finals. As the ever-effervescent Dave Rogers pointed out in commentary: ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it… you get absolutely nothing for fifth’. Saturday’s Round 14 clash mattered – there was a ‘proper, proper buzz,’ Tamara Taylor observed. Not all match-ups are born equal, and this one was a colossus.
The visitors wasted no time in getting going, as Bears fumbled the kick-off and found themselves under pressure. Fortunately, Claire Molloy, who had a game so good we don’t have the word count to get into it – ripped possession back, and gifted them the chance to exit. Bizarrely, Bristol opted to run it out, Italy-style, and the returning Harlequins winger Heather Cowell was soon latched onto the ball. Penalty buried, lineout executed, and Amy Cokayne over: her fourth against the hosts this season. In the swirling breeze, Arabella McKenzie’s conversion attempt took a good look at both uprights before deciding that the inside of neither took its fancy. 0 – 5.
Neither team enjoyed much accuracy in the ensuing passage of play, as they traded handling errors and territory like Panini stickers. Bears’ playmaking axis of El Snowsill and Amber Reed had moments of real fluidity, though – which eventually saw them back up the other end, and looking to rumble over from close quarters. Simi Pam and Sarah Bern were relentless at the breakdown, and Rownita Marston – whose ability to turn opposition into origami remains quite the party trick – was eventually over. Reed, ahead of what could be a huge Six Nations for her, added the extras.
Things were changeable – wherever you looked. The park was strewn with turnovers, kicks were kidnapped by the wind and hustled into the dead ball area, and possession was only ever a fling. There seemed to be a revolving door by the replacements’ benches, too: Ella Lovibond and Abby Dow were both off before the twenty-minute mark, bringing Grace Crompton and Beth Wilcock – who’d been a non-playing reserve just an hour previously – into the mix.
As omnipresent as Bern was proving, another Red Rose front rower – Lark Davies – has also been growing into that Bears jersey, with seven tries in her last five matches. Minutes later, she surged across the whitewash from the back of a lineout drive, and it became eight in six.
The scores were coming thick and fast now, and Cowell showed just what she’s all about as she skimmed a tricky pass right off her bootlaces, before turning her defender inside out from a standing start.
McKenzie added the loopiest, curviest conversion in West Country history to bring up 14 – 12, before Cowell struck again. Emily Scott, with an advantage and her trademark dancing feet, scampered past a few before offloading to Lagi Tuima – whose pass would surely have ended up in Bear paws, but for the winger, whose outstretched palm batted it to Wilcock. The last-minute call-up showed a clean pair of heels to drag Quins ahead for the first time since minute 13. Just five points in it as they headed to the sheds: a helter-skelter match somehow full of both errors and class.
— Bristol Bears Women ? (@BristolBearsW) March 13, 2023
The visitors emerged brightly, but were then caught napping as Snowsill took a free kick from the centre of the pitch. It bounced comfortably in-field, but Amy Turner’s backs weren’t there to gather it, and Davies found herself with the darts just six metres out. She needed no second invitation: 19 apiece with half an hour remaining.
Jolted back into the present – Harlequins rampaged downfield and proceeded to pepper the Bears’ try line. Fortunately, Bristol had pickpocket extraordinaire, Molloy, to conjure up a series of turnovers as they struggled to exit. Possession pilfered, time and again. It was a ridiculous individual defensive performance, and – eventually – breaks from Marston and Bern returned play to the other end. Most of Dave Ward’s forwards seem to think that they’re centres, and it’s magnificent that he’s done nothing but encourage that. It was Lauren Torley’s turn for heroics, as the jet-propelled winger managed several key interventions – but the territorial pressure eventually told – and Marston brought up the bonus point. The number eight showed all the dainty footwork of a prima ballerina at the base of an attacking scrum, before trading pointe shoes for boxing gloves and muscling over. 26 – 19, with 15 left.
Quins came back (of course they did: it was like watching tennis, this one) – through friend-of-the-column, Emily Chancellor. The replacement flanker, who had spent her Friday eating strangers’ sausage rolls through car windows (you’ll have to ask her…), decided that one type of pastry wasn’t enough this weekend – and opted to bag a meat pie, too. The Wallaroo charged down Snowsill’s attempted clearance, gathered it, and glided beneath the posts. Both sides had bonus points, and it was ‘game on’ once more.
Snowsill was quick to make amends, with a contestable restart resulting in a Bears scrum deep in Quins territory, where Bern was still going strong – 71 minutes in. The tighthead is at her barnstorming best right now: all driving knees, ankle-breaking footwork, and fends which ought to be accompanied by thunderclaps. Bristol slogged away for a full five minutes in the face of blistering Harlequins defence, before drawing the penalty and heading deep into the corner. The killer blow. Davies delivered and steered the maul onwards, before shipping it to Bern – who exploded over.
— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) March 11, 2023
Hustling to the last, the visitors had one more bite at the cherry, but it was to be Bears’ day. 31 – 26 as the ball was hoofed into touch. Nine tries, three changes of lead, and eighty minutes of pure entertainment.
Bern, who’d played every one of them, literally skipped from a beaming Bristol huddle to her Player of the Match interview. Her pride was palpable, as she spoke of the team’s growth this season – and how there’s more still to come. Ward soon arrived – just as passionate: his are a side who mean business.
The league now takes a quick pause for what’s going to be a stonking Six Nations, before returning for four crunch rounds. The top three are pretty much locked in – so who will be joining them in the semi-finals?
Coming up for Bears: Sale away, Exeter at home, Saracens on the road, and then Wasps at Twyford Avenue. It’s tough to see them taking points off either Chiefs or the reigning champions, but they’ll throw the kitchen sink at Sharks, and will take the full five against the women in black and gold. Because they’re improving so rapidly, let’s lob an extra bonus point into the mix. That’s – I suspect – ten points. A final tally of 56.
For Quins? Ten to take from hosting Wasps and DMP in rounds 15 and 17, sandwiching a daunting trip to Gloucester-Hartpury, and – finally – a grudge match against Worcester Warriors. If the Cherry and Whites send them home empty-handed, they’ll have 52 points as the final day of the regular season gets underway, and it’ll all be down to how they fare at Sixways. A win there could do it. Squeaky bums – wherever you look.
Will the Bears reach the play-offs for the second time in their history? Will Harlequins renew their season ticket at the league’s top table? Two things are for certain: this season’s going to have a thrilling finale, and the hottest tickets in town are those to Twickenham on the 29th, as the Red Roses host France – so get your skates on, and I’ll see you there.