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PWR round one: Bristol Bears top the table and newcomers stand tall in defeat

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 18: Abbie Ward of Bristol Bears looks on during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby match between Bristol Bears and Sale Sharks at Ashton Gate on November 18, 2023 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

The first round of the 2023/24 Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby season got underway in fine fashion last weekend. At the end of the round Bristol Bears Women topped the standings after their bonus-point win, followed by Saracens Women in second and Exeter Chiefs Women in third after both also secured five points.

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Harlequins Women sit in fourth with four points going into the second round while their first-round opponents Trailfinders Women are in fifth with one point. Fellow inductees to the league Leicester Tigers Women finished the weekend in sixth with defending champions Gloucester-Hartpury in seventh after a first-round bye week. Sean Lynn’s side will start their title defence campaign on the 25th of November against Leicester Tigers in a Slater Cup double-header at Kingsholm Stadium.

Loughborough Lightning and Sale Sharks go into round two in eighth and ninth respectively after losing their first league matches of the season.

Here’s a brief rundown of what happened in each game in round one:

Bristol Bears vs Sale Sharks

Bristol Bears hosted the opening game of the round as they faced Sale Sharks at Ashton Gate. Not only was the game the first of the newly rebranded Premiership Women’s Rugby, but it was also the first match of the season to be broadcast as part of the landmark new TNT Sports broadcast deal.

Bristol came away victorious with a 48-5 score line which featured tries from Lark Atkin-Davies (who scored a brace), Reneeqa Bonner, Abbie Ward, Lucy Burgess, Phoebe Murray, Jess Sprague, and Ella Lovibond.

Atkin-Davies, who was the league’s top try-scorer last season with 23 tries and the second for points scored in WXV 1 (five tries, 25 points), scored her to two tries from strong driving mauls, the dominant method of scoring for the hooker of late.

Bonner danced through the defence to score Bristol’s second in the eighth minute after collecting a pinpoint cross-field kick from new signing Holly Aitchison, who was a key component in England’s WXV-winning squad in New Zealand. Ward marked her return to rugby 17 weeks after giving birth to her daughter with a try from short range as she pounced on the loose ball, and was awarded player of the round for round one for her performance in the opening match.

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Scrum-half Burgess left the Sharks defence scattered in her wake in the 33rd minute as she went solo from the breakdown to secure the bonus point.

Sharks’ new signing, Italian international Beatrice Rigoni, scored their only try of the match just before half-time. While the try had little impact on the final score, Rigoni’s name is likely one we will be seeing on scoresheets to come throughout the season. Another standout moment from the travelling side was a bone-rattling tackle from Laura Perrin to deny Burgess an initial try-scoring opportunity in the first half which rightfully did the rounds on social media.

Murray powered away to score after a pass from Aitchison before Sprague scored the team’s sixth. Lovibond enjoyed a clear sprint to the line for a well-worked final try after receiving a pass from Deborah Wills. The two were the only players in the league to carry more than 200 metres in the opening weekend with Wills covering 206 metres and Lovibond 201.

Saracens vs Loughborough Lightning

Three-time champions Saracens opened their account for the season with a convincing 48-7 win against Loughborough Lightning at the Stone X Stadium.

Canadian national team captain Sophie de Goede scored Saracens’ first two tries and one conversion on her PWR revival after returning to the club for a second time following her first stint in North London two years ago. The forward led the statistics for successful tackles in the league, making a total of 21 throughout the game.

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Scotland’s Rachel Malcolm, who captained her country to win WXV 2, scored Lightning’s only try in the 12th minute, which was converted by England’s Helena Rowland.

England’s Poppy Cleall, who missed out on WXV selection due to injury, reaped the rewards of her rehabilitation as she scored her first league try of the season in the 57th minute soon after Saracens had been awarded a penalty try. Zoe Harrison converted Cleall’s score, she herself returning from a lengthy ACL injury that she sustained in February this year.

Leanne Infante was the next to score before recent England internationals returned energised from their WXV 1 victory with Jess Breach and World Rugby Player of the Year Marlie Packer also crossing the whitewash. Sydney Gregson, who made the most linebreaks (three) of any player in round one, had the final word on the scoring for the afternoon in the 79th minute.

Trailfinders Women vs Harlequins

PWR newcomers Trailfinders well and truly stamped their intent on the league as they put in a defiant performance in the first round despite their 17-22 loss to local rivals Harlequins.

Tries from Harlequins’ Izzy Mayhew, Flo Robinson, and Abbie Fleming as well as seven points from the boot of Lagi Tuima secured the narrow win for the visiting side.

Trailfinders had the early lead through a penalty from Ellie Green, but found themselves playing 55 minutes with 14 players after Shannon Ikahihifo was shown the first red card of the 2023/24 season in the 30th minute. They were not deterred, and Liz Musgrove scored their first top-flight try just under ten minutes later to make the half-time score 10-12.

Giselle Mather’s side scored the first points in the second half with a try from Ella Amory making the score line 17-12, but Quins pulled ahead once more as a 60th-minute try from Fleming, converted by Tuima, gave them a two-point lead. The visitors’ lead was extended to five points going into the last ten minutes as Tuima slotted a penalty to give Harlequins their first win of the season.

Scotland’s Jade Konkel-Roberts, who is the Harlequins captain for this season, made the most carries across the league in round one (20).

Leicester Tigers vs Exeter Chiefs

Fellow top-flight newcomers Leicester Tigers hosted the final game of the first round when they faced last season’s runners-up and Cup winners Exeter Chiefs at Mattioli Woods Welford Road. Susie Appleby’s Chiefs left Leicester with five points after their 44-27 win.

Exeter’s Merryn Doidge scored their first try of the PWR season in the 12th minute which set up an influx of scores including two each from Niamh Orchard and Cliodhna Moloney, and three more from Gabby Cantorna, Claudia MacDonald, and Katie Buchanan.

England’s Meg Jones put the first points on the board for Tigers with a penalty in the 29th minute before she added their first-ever league try not long after, which she converted herself to take the score to 10-15 at half time.

Caroline Collie levelled the scores at the start of the second half before Orchard swiftly replied with her second. Scottish speedster Francesca McGhie was then let loose to score her first in Tigers’ colours, but Moloney’s second followed soon after for Exeter.

Chiefs began to turn the screw and pulled ahead with scores from USA Eagle Cantorna and England’s MacDonald. Tigers remained defiant despite the impending defeat and scored their final try of the afternoon from short range through back row Becky Noon, who featured for the side 15 times last season before their graduation to the PWR.

Exeter youngster Buchanan, who was awarded an England transition contract earlier this year, scored the final try of the game before Cantorna converted the score in the 80th minute to draw the round-one proceedings to a close.

Round two games:

Saturday 25th November

Trailfinders Women vs Saracens Women (16:45, Trailfinders Sports Club)
Gloucester-Hartpury vs Leicester Tigers Women (17:30, Kingsholm Stadium, Slater Cup double-header)
Sale Sharks Women vs Harlequins Women (19:00, CorpAcq Stadium)

Sunday 26th November

Exeter Chiefs Women vs Bristol Bears Women (12:30, Sandy Park, TNTSports 1)

 

Statistics provided by OPTA.

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Comments

1 Comment
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Clive 243 days ago

Only 9 teams and a new media deal meaning coverage was hard to find. I have watched the women’s game religiously for 3 years but it would seem they are not interested in raising the game’s profile, just the few quid from a new tv deal. The frou frou relaunch was a joke, the Saracens chatterers were ecstatic that less than a thousand turned up to watch. Pro rugby in England, men’s and women’s, is in a state with neither able to generate sufficient revenue without recourse to sugar daddies.

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