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The best single unit in the Wales side is the formidable back row.

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Purple Rain: Loughborough Lightning are back in business

By Claire Thomas
Players from Loughborough Lightning celebrate scoring a conversion by Helena Rowland (c) during the game between Loughborough Lightning and Exeter Chiefs Women at Franklin's Gardens on February 19, 2022 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

Premier 15s Round Six was all about rain. At the StoneX on Saturday, it rained tries – as Saracens put 89 points on a hapless DMP. Later on at Sixways, it just rained. Lots. Shed loads. By the bucket. I don’t think any of it made it into the broadcast, but the procession of paired-up animals before kick-off should really have been a warning…

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Up at Manchester’s Heywood Road, mud showered from the boots of everyone involved, as Sale lost to Exeter and the fixture gradually came to resemble La Tomatina Festival, but with the most intrepid of Mancunian mud.

At the Stoop, back on December 27, we celebrated the reign (this one’s tenuous) of Harlequins’ Shaunagh Brown. At Franklin’s Gardens, the DJ opted for Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” at full-time, but – really – it should have been Prince: there’d been a purple deluge all afternoon. Lightning had put ten tries on a spirited Wasps – dispensing with the “Bad Habit” which has plagued them this season: that of losing. The final result Loughborough 62 – 5 Wasps. The two-time semi-finalists are back.

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As they were forced to last year, Lightning fans have needed to be patient. In 2021, shorn of their World Cup-seeking Scottish contingent, and missing Emily Scarratt after her horrendous injury in the opening three minutes of the campaign, their youngsters had a torrid few months.

Loughborough lost five of their first six – unthinkable in years gone by – before they found their feet, the thistly cavalry arrived, and the tide turned. An African Violet missile tore up the standings – with a Sadia Kabeya-fuelled engine and Helena Rowland-led navigation system (destination: whitewash) at the heart of a thrilling late-season surge. They would place seventh, but reminded us all about their potential – defeating every team bar Saracens who finished above them.

This season looks to be a case of deja-vu. The start certainly has been. Head Coach Rhys Edwards was as honest and enlightening as ever when we spoke in the week: Lightning ‘should’ have beaten Saracens in Round One, ‘could’ have beaten Quins the next week, and ‘embarrassed’ themselves against Sale Sharks. They then found themselves out of their depth against a red-hot Chiefs in the fourth round, before turning a real corner against Bears ahead of Christmas.

This week, against an ailing Wasps outfit, they had to come up with the win. Simply had to. No team has ever reached the play-offs with more than six losses to their name, and Lightning are on five already. It’s wafer-thin ice, but it’s not impossible – especially with how many points Saracens and Harlequins have dropped already this season.

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It’s at this point that we have to doff our caps to Wasps, who gave Loughborough a proper rattle for 20 minutes – when they could very easily have folded like so much black and gold paper. Head Coach LJ Lewis and her squad have had everything thrown at them since the summer, but they really turned up for this one – and Tilly Vaughan-Fowler’s try at the 15-minute mark was both a peach, and the very least they deserved.

The side’s captain, talisman, and unofficial dentist – Liz Crake – was at the heart of it, as she is of everything they do. The loosehead-tighthead-number eight hasn’t missed a minute of their campaign, and leads the side in terms of tackle breaks, turnovers, points scored, and metres made – whilst proving the perfect rallying point for athletes playing purely for one another and love of the game, rather than any material gain.

As Vaughan-Fowler deftly finished off a passage of play which had involved Crake galloping through tackles, fending Jess Weaver off so hard that the Lightning scrum-half was briefly two-dimensional, and turning Scarratt inside out with a devilishly causal dummy – it suddenly looked as though the upset of the season could be on the cards. Lewis had said pre-match that success that afternoon would be points on the board – but such was Wasps’ resilience in defence, and the ‘why the hell not?’ attitude resplendent in that score, that we briefly wondered in commentary if, when she said ‘points’ – she meant those in the league table.

As it transpired, Loughborough were moments away from their season’s ‘eureka’ moment. In the space of ten minutes, Bryony Field scored from the back of a snarling line-out drive, a coast-to-coast score was dotted down by Carys Williams-Morris, and Jess Weaver would have her revenge in scintillating style – carving through Wasps’ line to bring up Lightning’s fifth. Game, set, and match.

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So, because eight is how many points they now have in the table, and also – conveniently – the number of items I scrawled on my match notes on Sunday, here’s an octet of things Loughborough fans will have loved about the weekend’s purple tempest:

1) They’re able to field a seriously classy match-day 23. Even with Georgina Tasker and Georgie Lingham with GB 7s, Helena Rowland recovering from injury, and Lilli Ives Campion in U20s camp – this was a team sheet which provoked an appreciative ‘oof’, and contained eleven senior internationals – including two World Player of the Years and Scotland’s formidable captain.

2) Field is well up to the task of filling the Lark Davies-shaped hole in Lightning’s forward pack. She nailed her darts, popped up all over the park, was part of a front row who took Wasps to the cleaners, and had a hat trick to show for it all.

3) Everyone in that squad can handle, and handle well. Loughborough committed from the start to keeping the ball alive, and it resulted in some fabulous play – and a flamboyant 21 offloads.

4) Helen Nelson looked as confident and dangerous as I’ve seen her – and was rightly named Player of the Match. Sure, she slotted twelve points, but it was her constant game-breaking – at both fly-half and centre – which shone.

5) Bulou Mataitoga is brilliant. She played 80 minutes, and didn’t go missing for a second: always looking to get her hands on the ball, voracious in defence, and in possession of a devastating inside step. Several of Wasps’ players will have woken up in a cold sweat since the match – haunted by the fullback’s dancing feet.

6) The nuts and bolts are there. Their line out clicked, and resulted in a trio of maul tries. Their scrum was dominant throughout – and gobbled up three of Wasps’ put-ins. Their penalty tally of eight is in line with their season average, which is the second best in the league.

7) The Roses’ future is – well – rosy. Edwards is as passionate as they come about developing young talent, and Loughborough’s nippers sparkled all afternoon – from Weaver’s impeccable territorial kicking to set up Field’s hat trick score, to Daisy Hilbert-Jones leaving scorch marks on the pitch en route to a try of her own.

The pick of the bunch? Lightning’s penultimate five-pointer – in which teenage Lucy Weaver picked out a tirelessly ruinous Kabeya, with the scrum-half straight to the breakdown – shipping it onto Detysha Harper, who hooked it across her body and out to Morwenna Talling – who’d clearly picked up a thing or two from the inhabitants of the poultry farm she was raised on, and chicken-winged it to Phoebe Andrews. The replacement hooker was over on debut – having been in the Loughborough pathway for six years. Five amazing young English talents under the age of 25 – linking up beautifully.

8) Franklin’s Gardens is becoming a fortress. Edwards has said how playing there ‘puts a spring’ in his squad’s step – and they really did seem to love it: relentless for 80 minutes, and all smiles afterwards. Lightning have now won three out of four there, and will be itching for Round 11 – when they’ve a double-header with Northampton Saints, and the chance to exact revenge on Sale Sharks.

Up next? The toughest assignment in the league: an away day at the Alpas Arena – where Gloucester Hartpury’s Mo Hunt and her circus await. It’s hard to see anyone beating the table toppers right now, but – after this weekend – Lightning will head there full of a previously-lacking self-belief. They were a joy to watch on Sunday, for a host of reasons, and this one has all the makings of a classic.

At last, the heavens opened in Northampton in Round Six. Lightning are back in business: long may this purple storm continue.

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