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It all comes down to this: An opening number for Saturday’s big PWR dance

By Claire Thomas
EXETER, ENGLAND - JUNE 14: Dave Ward, Head Coach of Bristol Bears, Abbie Ward of Bristol Bears, Natasha Hunt of Gloucester Hartpury and Sean Lynn, Head Coach of Gloucester Hartpury pose for a photo during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby Final media day at Sandy Park on June 14, 2024 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

At last, the printing presses at PWR Towers are whirring away – churning out programmes for the season’s final act, with protagonists inked in and show times confirmed.

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The booklets are glossier than ever, and chock-full of narrative, detail, and history – with a ‘Cast’ section centrefold which stops the absent-minded page-flipping in the half-dark and seizes the attention instantly.

There, separated by just a crease and pair of staples, are the best two teams in all the land. Soon, the curtain will rise as the whistle sounds, and they won’t be separated at all.

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Technically, it’s an ensemble of two – a team in red, and one in blue – but seasoned audience members know that this league’s a rich tapestry of storylines and characters – and to expect a flurry of donned and changed caps as the cast multirole throughout.

In essence, it’s first versus third for PWR and Glory on the boards of Sandy Park, but there’s going to be a lot more going on than that.

Gloucester-Hartpury. The defending champions. The favourites. The hunted. The standard-setting table toppers. The Circus. The family. The all-court game and astonishing squad depth.

Bristol Bears. The first-timers. The underdogs. The entertainers. The Barcelona. The giant-slayers. The sparkling attackers with an oft-overlooked bedrock of fervent defence.

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They’re both West Country juggernauts – with starry squad lists, impressive facilities, and deeply passionate head coaches – who are given a licence to thrill each and every time they lace up, but they’re also a fascinating clash of styles.

The critics oohed and aahed at the casting as these particular names went up in lights – tickets were snapped up within moments – and there’s no denying how differently these players arrived on this grandest of stages.

Dave Ward’s troupe made history in dramatic fashion – ripping up the form book and launching it at the most decorated side in the game over an 80-minute wrestling match.

They hurdled yellow cards, a potential crisis at tighthead, and the Grim Reaper of away semi-finals to reach the big dance: charging down the aisle, vaulting up the steps two at a time, and now stood – panting with effort and incredulity – in the spotlight.

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‘We’re in a final,’ they gasp – à-la Rownita Marston-Mulhearn (an interview for the ages) – as the adrenaline courses and North London’s wolves scatter.

Self-styled dark horses who proved more Trojan than pantomime, and who had us on the edge of our seats, as they coaxed Saracens over a trapdoor of their own ill-discipline in the final scene.

There were all the tropes: Reneeqa Bonner’s redemption arc, their full-80 front row proving a more iconic trio than the Schuyler sisters, and their weathering of the Wicked Wind of the North at a supremely blustery StoneX.

It was an uprising – a bona fide playoffs revolution – and one which made Les Miserables look positively uneventful.

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If we’re talking blustery conditions and evoking Oz, then cue the reigning champions. Sean Lynn’s women arrived at their second straight final in majestic fashion – as serene as a bubble-ensconced Glinda but potent as Elphaba – after making a very good Exeter side look very pedestrian at Kingsholm.

They scored 50, sure – from that rip-roaring opening number to Sisilia Tuipulotu’s stunning second-half aria – but the choreography on the other side of the ball was perhaps the most awe-inspiring: they’d kept Chiefs to seven until the final ten minutes.

At 10’32 on the match clock, Susie Appleby’s side finally had an attacking opportunity, which started with Emily Tuttosi throwing a line out. Cut to 24’30, and the scenery’s changed – Mo Hunt is feeding a Gloucester-Hartpury scrum – but the scoreboard hasn’t.

Not by a single point. Chiefs’ opportunity had lasted almost 14 minutes, and amounted to nothing. 119 seconds later, Lleucu George splashes down for the Cherry and Whites’ third – and that was the game in a nutshell.

The reigning champions absorbed everything thrown at them with patience, discipline, and intensity – and then seemingly struck back at will. They were heavy favourites, but wore that mantle with consummate ease – all the masterful swish and swagger of Phantom beneath his cloak.

In their vastly different ways, both semi-final triumphs were spectacular, and contained little virtuosic moments which were – by any standards – Olivier-worthy. Hannah Jones’s touch and Keira Bevan’s 50:22. Everything Maud Muir did: five stars. Abbie Ward’s relentless accuracy.

Georgia Brock and Pip Hendy have barely graduated drama school, but look like they’ve been leading ladies for decades. Bears’ back row had us in the palms of their hands. Tatyana Heard brought the house down. Bonner’s goosey… Mon Dieu.

The fun thing with all of this is that it doesn’t matter a jot how you find yourself on stage for the grand finale – so long as you’re there, beneath the lights, and with your microphone faded up.

What’s gone before is an indicator of form and of approach – and Gloucester-Hartpury will draw upon their peerless campaign just as Bristol take courage from the resilience they showed against Saracens – but all that really counts now is what happens at three pm on Saturday.

Both have had a fortnight to recover and prepare, both have injury lists as small as you could realistically hope for at this stage of the season, and both have towering performance ceilings which could see them lift the trophy as the confetti canons pop and the standing ovation ripples around Sandy Park.

Let’s be quite clear: the champions are favourites to go back-to-back. They’ve won 11 of their last 14 against Bears, including the most recent six – and they’ve the invaluable experience of having been in, and won, a final.

They’re also the best team in the league, which is pretty compelling stuff. But – but – they need to be that best team one more time if they’re to etch their names deeper into rugby legend.

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Dave Ward alluded to this a fortnight ago, but we’re strictly musical theatre here today, so we’re actually going to quote Donna from ‘Mamma Mia!’. ‘The winner takes it all.’

If Bears continue to play their recent outstanding rugby, and The Circus falter, no one will give a flying monkey’s who topped the log as Round 18 concluded: there’ll be a new name on that pot, and Hallie Ward will have her choice of medal to use as a teething toy on the drive back up the M5.

We talk about Gloucester-Hartpury’s power game and Bristol’s effervescent attack, but the truth is that they’re highly versatile and complete outfits. They’re the two most dominant carriers in the league, they’re more accurate with their tackles than anyone, and they beat defenders for fun.

The red and white scrum fares slightly better than the blue one, but the lineouts which start with a Lark [Atkin-Davies] tend to be more successful than those initiated by a Neve [Jones].

There are some battlegrounds which could prove decisive – Bears concede a lot of turnovers, whilst Gloucester-Hartpury manage an extra pair of 22 entries per 80 than their opponents (which is significant when their returns on those entries are identical) – but just a cursory look at the statistics proves how tight this could be.

Historically, these two chorus lines differ hugely when it comes to kicking – 18 per match versus 9 – but we know that Bristol ‘throw the pass’ Bears have prepared all season to do it both ways when it matters most, and these are ensembles with more than enough nouse and skill to improvise – should their scripted lines fall flat in the early exchanges.

What a finale we have in store – two teams who truly believe they’re 80 minutes from being crowned Queens of English Rugby, and who will hurl every ounce of their vast swathes of talent and desire at that task. On paper – it’s Gloucester-Hartpury’s to lose, but that’s what they said about Saracens a fortnight ago… As soon as the music starts – cast aside your programme, and just relish the performances and occasion.

If life’s a cabaret, then we’ve two brilliant entertainers centre stage on Saturday – with one roll for the whole shebang. History has its eyes on this one. One day more.

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Antony 29 days ago

Lovely article - hope the game provides as much zing!

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