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PWR final: Sarah Beckett, Bethan Lewis lead way, Circus stay calm to retain crown

By Martyn Thomas
EXETER, ENGLAND - JUNE 22: Players of Gloucester-Hartpury celebrate with the PWR Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby Final Trophy after their team's victory in the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby Final match between Bristol Bears and Gloucester-Hartpury at Sandy Park on June 22, 2024 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

As dejected Bristol Bears co-captain Amber Reed admitted as she reflected on what might have been at Sandy Park, the 2024 Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR) final was a “cliché, a game of two halves”.

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For 40 minutes, it looked as though Bristol would sweep Gloucester-Hartpury aside in the Devon sunshine as Courtney Keight – celebrating her 50th Bears appearance – Lark Atkin-Davies and Hannah Botterman crossed the whitewash before half-time.

But the champions refused to be beaten and turned the match on its head in a stunning second-half display, turning a 17-7 deficit into a 36-24 victory.

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It is the sort of resilient performance that we have come to expect of the Circus but how did they do it?

We take a look at a couple of the major talking points from a rollercoaster afternoon in Exeter.

Circus stay calm in final heat

Nothing appeared to go right for Gloucester-Hartpury or their coach Sean Lynn during a first half in which the Bears were absolutely dominant, scoring three tries to deservedly lead by 10 points.

Indeed, Lynn’s woes began before kick-off as a member of the Sandy Park security team briefly blocked the Circus coach and his assistants from taking their usual vantage point behind the posts.

PWR officials intervened and the three Gloucester-Hartpury coaches were soon stood in the North Stand, but they would not have enjoyed what was served up in the opening 40 minutes.

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However, there was no panic from Lynn, his coaches or co-captains Mo Hunt and Zoe Aldcroft as they addressed the players in the changing room at half-time.

“It was very calm, the big message was, have that belief,” Lynn revealed afterwards. “We can’t defend for 36 minutes, we just needed to exit a little bit more with ball hand… that worked very well for us.”

Whatever was said worked extremely well. Gloucester-Hartpury swarmed the Bears from the restart, dominated possession and crucially stayed on the right side of referee Sara Cox’s whistle.

Fixture
England Premier 15s
Gloucester-Hartpury Women RFC
36 - 24
Full-time
Bristol Bears Women
All Stats and Data

They thought they had scored within five minutes, only for the TMO to intervene, but did not let that setback derail their revival.

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Bristol held out until the 54th minute but once their defence had been breached for a second time, the floodgates threatened to open.

A third try arrived four minutes later and by the 62nd minute the Circus were 11 points in front. Five minutes later, Gloucester-Hartpury were out of sight.

“We went in [at half-time], we knew we had to change a couple of things. We wanted to get the ball in our hands a lot more,” Aldcroft said.

“It shows the character of the team because we have been in that position before, I think back to Bristol at home, I think we were 19-5 down at one point.

“It’s just about the character of the team and how much we want it for each other.”

Beckett, Lewis lead the charge

For 40 minutes this was a performance very unlike what we have come to expect from the now back-to-back English champions.

In every facet of the game during the first half at Sandy Park, Gloucester-Hartpury were second best.

They seemed flustered by the Bears’ high-tempo game, as well as the heat, making mistakes and taking the wrong option on numerous occasions.

Neve Jones was not connecting with her lineout darts, Lleucu George’s spiral bombs began to look aimless, and Hannah Botterman was seemingly punching holes in their defensive line at will.

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To add insult to literal injury, the champions could only watch as Ireland second row Sam Monaghan left the match on a stretcher. Was this one step too far for Lynn’s injury-ravaged squad?

Ultimately, no and much of the reason that it wasn’t lies with the performance of two of the team’s forwards. Put simply, Sarah Beckett and Bethan Lewis refused to accept they were beaten.

The pair were two of few Gloucester-Hartpury players who could walk back into the changing room at half-time with their heads held high and they weren’t about to let Bristol take their title away from them.

Becket would end the game as Player of the Match, but the award could have been given to either of them.

Emma on song from the tee

Emma Sing admitted in an interview with RugbyPass earlier this week that the blow of learning her England contract would not be renewed had impacted her both on and off the pitch.

She was a woman with a point to prove and that is exactly what she did during the second half at Sandy Park.

Sing supplied the crucial go-ahead score on Saturday, powering over from close range, but it was her boot that took the game away from the Bears.

As Bristol coach Dave Ward admitted afterwards it is much harder to recover when the scoreboard is ticking over by multiples of seven points rather than five, and every sweetly struck conversion made the equation facing the Bears that bit harder.

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The match was won well before Sing stepped up in the final minutes to land a long-range penalty that took her personal tally to 16 points and added gloss to the scoreline but it was fitting she had the final contribution.

It was not all roses for Sing, though. Had she passed in the build-up to Lewis’ disallowed try there would arguably have been no need for a TMO check as Mia Venner outside her would have had an easy score.

But it is easy for judgement to get cloudy in those clutch moments, an accusation you cannot level against the full-back’s metronomic kicking.

Bears will be back

As they chatted to the media with their rivals celebrating around them, both Ward and Reed admitted defeat would take a long time to get over.

But neither was regretful about the way they had gone about the task of winning the final, and nor should they have been.

Ward has implemented a style of play in Bristol that is the envy of the league, and they gave Gloucester-Hartpury an almighty scare at Sandy Park.

Who knows, had they been able to withstand the pressure at the start of the second half for a few more minutes, maybe they would have been standing amongst the ticker tape as champions.

But elite sport is littered with such tales of ‘if’, ‘but’ and ‘what could have been’.

What we do know is that despite the final result, the Bears can not only be proud of what they have achieved this season – becoming the first team outside the top two to reach the top-flight final – but an utterly dominant first-half display in the showpiece match.

For 40 minutes, the best team in the country had no answer to the dual playmakers, Reed and Holly Aitchison, who were swapping positions, stretching the Gloucester-Hartpury defence to breaking point and having fun.

Up front, Botterman was having a game for the ages, while Sarah Bern put her body on the line and Alisha Joyce-Butchers was a constant menace.

When number eight Rownita Marston-Mulhearn booted the ball high into the East Stand to bring an end to the first half, the impossible looked distinctly possible.

That the Bears fell 40 minutes short of their greatest triumph, while agonising, cannot be the end. It must be used as fuel for next season, and beyond.

Reed is confident it will. “We believe we can win it but we wanted to give ourselves a shot in the final and we definitely did that,” she said.

“We’ve built across the season, it’s not been perfect, it’s not been pretty at times but we’ve found a way and really cemented the Bears way.

“We want to play exciting rugby. It is a bit high-risk at times, but we train so hard to do all the little skills. It’s not necessarily as high-risk for us as it may appear.

“So, we’ve definitely got more to build on next season but it’s another step up.”

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