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Bristol Bears confident despite starting PWR semi-final as ‘massive underdogs’

By Martyn Thomas
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25: Dave Ward, Head Coach of Bristol Bears, speaks with players of Bristol Bears as they huddle after the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby match between Harlequins and Bristol Bears at The Stoop on May 25, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

If the noises emanating from the Bristol Bears camp this week are anything to go by then the Premiership Women’s Rugby [PWR] record books might need to be updated come Sunday evening.

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Since England’s top-flight was rebranded, initially as the Premier 15s back in 2017, each of the 10 semi-finals contested have gone the way of the higher seeded team.

That means Bristol and Exeter Chiefs, who both hit the road this weekend having finished the regular season third and fourth respectively, will need to make history if they are to secure their place in the PWR final at Sandy Park on June 22nd.

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Bears head coach Dave Ward needed no reminding of that fact or the task facing his team as they prepare to kick-off the play-offs against Saracens at StoneX Stadium on Sunday.

Ward has guided the Bears into the semi-finals in each of his three seasons in charge, yet their two previous appearances at this stage both resulted in away defeats, at Exeter in 2022 and Gloucester 12 months ago.

“We are going in as massive underdogs, you know, we can’t escape that fact. I don’t think I’ve heard one person predict a Bristol win yet,” Ward told reporters.

“But that’s music to my ears in a way because probably the two previous seasons, people gave us more of a chance and we didn’t quite show up.

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“The fact that people aren’t giving us a chance means we can go under the radar no problem, and then hopefully shock and awe a few people on Sunday.”

Fixture
England Premier 15s
Saracens Women
21 - 29
Full-time
Bristol Bears Women
All Stats and Data

Ward shouldered much of the responsibility for last season’s semi-final exit at Kingsholm, in which his side failed to land a blow until the second half before going on to lose 21-12.

Drawing on his own experiences lining up at hooker in big knockout matches for Harlequins, the coach is hopeful he can create a winning atmosphere this weekend.

“I probably over-coached in that Gloucester game and drove a bit of fear into the players,” Ward admitted.

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“[You’ve got to] enjoy these occasions, enjoy working hard. I played in some pretty big games, and I always enjoyed it.

“You could be one minute to kick-off in the European Challenge Cup semi-final and you’ve got Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler next to you. You know, you’re not going to be focused [with] those two idiots messing around, telling jokes.

“So, I think there’s that part of it as well but also then knowing that the next time you’re next to these guys is the first scrum of the game.

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“So, I think just understanding that dynamic of who needs to get to where they need to get to as a coach, and not putting too much pressure on people. But as I said, maintaining that focus and our purpose.”

The Bears certainly don’t need to make the trip south with any fear. The team has carved out a reputation as the great entertainers of PWR – even topping a number of attacking metrics in defeat to Sale last weekend – and they have recent experience of beating Saracens.

Ward insists the players have not spoken about their Allianz Cup final defeat at the hands of the same opponents at the end of April, a match played without Six Nations stars, but the league victory in March has been discussed.

Bristol started that match at 100 miles per hour, scoring two tries in the opening six minutes and then kept their opponents scoreless in the second half while crossing the whitewash another three times to win 35-10.

“I think the blueprint is there,” said Ward, who insisted Bristol “wanted Saracens” in the semi-finals.

That is a sentiment echoed by Bears co-captain Abbie Ward, who knows what it takes to beat Saracens in a play-off match having helped Harlequins to victory in the 2021 Premier 15s final.

“It does give you confidence [but] the final with Harlequins and winning the Premiership is not something that I actually need to really talk about because we’ve done it as Bristol,” she said.

“It’s not even like you need to go back three years; this season we’ve beaten Saracens. Yes, they were missing certain players but any team on any weekend are missing certain players.

“So, I think the players know that Saracens are beatable. You can watch them, yes, they can play some fantastic rugby but I think we back ourselves in the brand and style and the rugby that we can play too.”

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And the England second row does not believe playing the semi-final in north London presents as big a fear factor as it perhaps would have done in previous years.

“It’s not something to me that is particularly daunting,” she said. “And I think that’s also something the girls feel now.

“I think previously, Saracens at StoneX seemed like an unbeatable side, a game that you just couldn’t win. Whereas now I don’t think that’s the case.

“But I think that comes from the way that we’ve played, our results over the past seasons, other results in the [past] seasons and also it’s that belief, it’s that confidence and it’s how we’ve grown as a squad.”

Abbie Ward suggests this season, her third at the club, has been about “finessing” the work that was done in the first two years under Dave’s stewardship.

Bristol struggled for form in the early stage of the season, losing three of their first five PWR matches – against each of their fellow semi-finalists – as new recruits, including Holly Aitchison and Hannah Botterman, bedded in.

Aitchison and Botterman will return to Saracens this weekend as part of a buoyant side that lost only one of their next 10 league matches before final day defeat at Sale.

“That was always going to be the way in terms of how we learned to grow with each other and mesh, how we learned how to play with each other,” Abbie Ward said.

“We’ve done that now, so we’ve got the groundwork, we’ve got the squad depth and talent. We’ve been through those experiences about decision making, and we’ve grown our decision-making team and our strategy.

“So, it’s about putting it all together and I think if we get all those bits right on the weekend, then we’ll be absolutely fine.”

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