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Before you go: An encore for Saturday’s Premier 15s final, and history at Queensholm

By Claire Thomas
Copyright: ©RFU https://www.premier15s.com Taken during the Allianz Premier Final match between Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter Chiefs, Queensholm, Gloucester, England on 24th June 2023.

Sport moves quickly: it’s restless and unrelenting. The pyrotechnic launchers at Queensholm would scarcely have cooled before plans were being formulated for next season’s grand finale. As the confetti was swept from its turf, the press release rebranding the Premier 15s as Premiership Women’s Rugby might well have been receiving a final tweak or two. Off-seasons are short, especially if you’re the champions: the Circus’ title defence was looming large before they’d even fully sobered up.

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As Mo Hunt executed her now infamous chair surfing party trick, yet more player movements were being finalised, and although Kelsey Jones might still be wearing those ‘champs’-emblazoned sunglasses, you can bet clubs league-wide are plotting how best to ensure it’s their name etched on that trophy in a year’s time. Sport stops for no one, but – if you wouldn’t mind – let’s linger just a little longer on Saturday, because it deserves a slight caesura: a moment to savour what we just witnessed.

The final was marketed brilliantly, and attended accordingly. Almost ten thousand flocked to a sun-drenched Queensholm, and they really, really made their presence felt. You shouldn’t be able to get goosebumps in close to 30 degrees, but – just watching the coverage back – their passion is skin-tingling, and there’s a collective sense of being a part of history. This lot knew they were at something very special.

The athletes ran out into a veritable cauldron, and produced the start to match. Blistering. Exeter’s kick receipt allowed them to unleash a seemingly-possessed Kate Zackary, and then a returning Claudia MacDonald, both of whom gobbled up ground to set the tone. The following day, Elton John would open his Glastonbury set with the rip-roaring ‘Pinball Wizard’, but here were 30 women coming out of the blocks more akin to cannonball crusaders.

Gloucester-Hartpury met fire with fire, as – of course – Sarah Beckett turned the ball over, and the opening salvo was complete. Sometimes, finals rugby results in cagey starts, but this was an unrestrained eruption – and 9,668 spectators sat forwards in their seats, entranced.

The first scrum tussled above a face-meltingly toasty 4G, and amidst the sort of cacophony usually reserved for the over-enthusiastic warming up of a school orchestra’s percussion section. Brilliant bedlam. The Cherry and Whites got it away, and had their first opportunity to prove that – on the biggest day in the club’s history – they could execute better than they did against Bristol a fortnight ago.

Hunt loves the expression ‘one shoot, one kill’, and the Sundance Kid himself would have doffed his cap at what came next. Sean Lynn’s side looked as slick as they had done in some time, and soon had a penalty won and buried in the corner. A big decision – it was eminently kickable – a big statement, and then a big shove. The right call, it transpired: first blood to the table toppers, who looked right at home in their maiden final.

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They weren’t perfect – they’d blow a try-scoring opportunity moments later – but it was Exeter who were proving the more fallible. Kick receipts and returns were fluffed uncharacteristically, and the league’s most irresistible attack was foiled the first time it really looked to threaten. Kelsey Jones came up with the turnover two metres from the try line, falling onto her back with a celebratory finger directed at the West Country skies.

It was a rockstar move from one of the best front rowers in the league, and the sort of involvement which wins matches. On days like Saturday, those win championships. Twenty minutes played, and – although this wasn’t yet reflected on the scoreboard – things had been as One Directional as the UK charts were in the early 2010s.

Exeter would square things up – capitalising on Beckett’s yellow card through the ever-reliable Emily Tuttosi – but their joy was short-lived. A ginormous restart was spilt, and Tatyana Heard proved an adept flanker as an attacking scrum eventually resulted in Rachel Lund charging over.

Gloucester-Hartpury had weathered the sin-bin period, and then furthered that momentum as soon as it ended. Seemingly within seconds, Beckett went from the naughty step to the line out, and then over the whitewash – before Emma Sing slotted her first conversion of the day to bring up a 17 – 7 scoreline as the clock went (appropriately) red. Chiefs just weren’t getting or keeping enough ball, whilst the league leaders were making things count.

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The second half started like the first: frenetic, fearless, and finals-worthy. Exeter had pulled off a late miracle at Sandy Park against the reigning champions, but Sean Lynn’s side proved much more disciplined than Saracens, and have developed a handy habit of turning the ball over at crucial moments. They managed one almost instantly, and a desperate MacDonald found herself batting a probing LLeucu George kick out of play – and out beyond the outstretched fingertips of arch finisher Ellie Rugman.

Referee Dan Jones headed beneath the sticks, and to his pocket for the second time. Google suggests that High Willhays is the highest point in the West Country. At that moment – 42 minutes into the 2023 Premier 15s final – that was not the case. The biggest mountain to climb was at Queensholm, as Chiefs stood, necks craned, staring up at the side closing in on an inaugural league title. 24 – 7.

The second half flew by in a series of momentum swings: a stop motion of colliding titans. Hope Rogers burrowing for the line – usually a slam dunk – but being held up by George, who was playing rugby from the gods. Lund being shown yellow for a high shot on a tireless Rachel Johnson, and 14-a-side ensuing. Exeter’s peerless attack finally clicking as Liv McGoverne finished off a flurry of Devonian punches, before hurling the ball into the ground and roaring defiantly at a floored Zoe Aldcroft.

It was a shout of celebration, but mingled with relief and frustration, too: you could sense Chiefs running out of time, left with less and less room to manoeuvre their way over the season’s final hurdle. The Kiwi – one of the finest kickers in the league – mishit the conversion badly, and it felt a repeat of El Snowsill’s 60th-minute miss here a fortnight ago.

Hunt’s since said she knew that was a pivotal moment in the semi-final, and the deja vu proved a shot in the arm for Gloucester-Hartpury. Moments later, Sing slotted a penalty to grow the gap to 15. ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times’: a tale of two kicks.

The Shed Heads watched their side grow in stature, and – as the cushion expanded on the scoreboard – the party got going on the pitch. Sam Monaghan threw offloads and Sophie Bridger threw dummies, as Connie Powell picked a scything line in her final outing for the club. Heard was denied a coffin-nailer by a heroic covering tackle from Abbie Fleming, and limped off the field, but even a makeshift backline involving Hunt at fly-half and Mia Venner moving to outside centre couldn’t derail this hurtling, chortling, cherry locomotive.

With six to play, Lisa Neumann glided over, and that would be that. Ebony Jefferies grabbed a consolation score, converted by Cantorna – just as the pair did last year – but the engraver had cracked on with the trophy by that point. Game, set, and match. Off went the ball, and on came a flood of red jerseys.

Heartbreak again for Exeter. Susie Appleby was – rightly – extraordinarily proud of them, post-match: they’ve been immense all season long, thoroughly deserved their Allianz Cup defence and parade, and it’s undeniable that there’s a championship in that squad and programme – but they’re yet to bring that trademark ability to run riot and smother opposition to the game’s biggest stage. They’ll be back.

For Gloucester-Hartpury, it’s a chef’s kiss. The circus hurtled from the blocks like a West Country Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, entertained all year long, and then didn’t bat an eyelid when they had to replicate that over 80 winner-takes-all minutes. Lynn combined blockbuster recruitment with passionate nurturing of young talent, and created a culture of genuine cohesion and sisterhood – resulting in a squad both frighteningly deep and overflowing with motivation.

As the players headed from a stadium renamed in their honour to Teague’s Bar for celebrations, their match fees headed to the 4Ed fund, in support of Ed Slater and his family – and to raise awareness of motor neurone disease: another truly special moment in one of women’s rugby’s great days.

There aren’t many fairytales in sport, but it felt like we’d just witnessed one of them: a side whose captain had poured her World Cup heartbreak into a history-making campaign – record-breaking, table-topping, and then playoffs conquering at the very first time of asking. There’s already plenty of chat about next season – sport is relentless and unrelenting, as we know – but some moments are worth dwelling on, and this was certainly one of those.

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