Both teams hope to put the tin lid on a brilliant Allianz Premier 15s season with their first English title – but who will have the edge in Saturday's final in Gloucester?
The scene is set. This Saturday sees the top two from the regular season contest the Allianz Premier 15s final (3.30pm, live on BT Sport) with Gloucester-Hartpury v Exeter Chiefs – and both are chasing their first English league title. Kingsholm, the venue, has been renamed Queensholm and a record crowd is guaranteed. Each side is packed with international quality and potential match-winners.
So who are the favourites? Seldom is it so difficult to separate the teams. Each beat the other in league fixtures and only one point separated them in the final table.
Each won their semi-final in contrasting ways. Gloucester-Hartpury came out strong against Bristol Bears, scoring through Sarah Beckett after three minutes. They were helped by an officiating blip as the TMO Nikki O’Donnell asked to check a dodgy-looking pass just as Emma Sing’s conversion sailed over.
Gloucester led 14-0 at the break and Bristol hadn’t fired a shot. At Exeter the next day, Saracens led 14-0 at the break and Chiefs hadn’t fired a shot.
While Gloucester wobbled in the second half, ceding possession and trusting their defence, Exeter summoned some fury and ripped into a Saracens side whose discipline fell apart. A ghastly minute or so when Holly Aitchison and Marlie Packer were yellow-carded was probably the turning point.
PREMIER 15s FINALS
2018 Saracens 24-20 Harlequins
2019 Saracens 33-17 Harlequins
2020 Not played due to Covid
2021 Harlequins 25-17 Saracens
2022 Saracens 43-21 Exeter
Form ahead of Gloucester-Hartpury v Exeter Chiefs
On the evidence of those semis, Gloucester will win the half-back battle. Mo Hunt, the runaway leader for try assists, has been imperious behind a beefed-up pack and won Player of the Year at the RPA Awards.
Outside her, Lleucu George has also had an outstanding campaign and puts greater distance on her kicks than her cautious opposite number, the New Zealander Liv McGoverne.
Up front, the scrum battle should be pretty even and the lineout utterly fascinating. Canadian Emily Tuttosi, one of seven North Americans involved in Chiefs’ semi-final win, produced a throwing masterclass. Time and again she found her target at the back of the lineout and gave Chiefs prime attacking ball.
Gloucester’s attempts to play from the tail didn’t work but they are seriously good at disrupting opposition lineout ball. If Zoe Aldcroft, Sam Monaghan and Alex Matthews can do a repeat job on Exeter, Gloucester-Hartpury will take a big step towards taking the title.
The second-row tussle, Aldcroft and Monaghan against Poppy Leitch and Nichola Friday, will be a marvellous duel within a duel.
And if Gloucester can boast the rampaging Beckett – she bumped off Sarah Bern thunderously in the semi – and the tireless Matthews, 28 tackles last time out, then Exeter have weapons of their own in Hope Rogers, a wrecking-ball prop able to go the full distance, and her abrasive fellow American Rachel Johnson.
You imagine it will be the forwards that settle it because whatever the weather, nerves and handling errors will surely punctuate the game. Fluid back play could be a rarity as the tension racks up.
If there is a match-winner in the backs, it’s England international Claudia MacDonald or another American, Kate Zachary, who are as likely as any to make the telling intervention.
Both line up in an Exeter side showing two changes from their semi-final XV. MacDonald makes a timely return from injury to take her place on the wing, while Irish international Edel McMahon starts at blindside. Abbie Fleming and Katie Buchanan drop to the bench.
Gloucester-Hartpury field the same XV that beat Bristol. There is one change among the replacements, with Red Rose Connie Powell coming in for youngster Georgia Brock.
A year ago, Exeter went down meekly in the final against Saracens but back-row Johnson thinks they have learned from 2022.
“Last year we put a lot into our semi-final and almost didn’t have more to give,” she says. “This year we’re a bit more seasoned, a bit more experienced. I feel like this [the semi-final win v Saracens] was a really great stepping stone for the final, instead of feeling like we exhausted ourselves to get there.”
Chiefs thrashed Gloucester 58-19 away as recently as 3 June. But while the visitors needed the points to clinch home advantage in the semis, Gloucester fielded an understrength side, keeping their powder dry for bigger days ahead.
“We still beat a strong Gloucester side,” says coach Susie Appleby, who joined Chiefs from Gloucester-Hartpury in 2020. “We learned some things about their style of play, so it was a valuable experience for us.”
Exeter won the Allianz Cup this year, just as they did last year. They feel they’re on a roll.
But that feeling is just as strong at Gloucester-Hartpury, where the U18s look unbeatable, the university side coached by Hunt has won the league two years in a row and sister club Cheltenham Tigers have won back-to-back championships. This week Gloucester-Hartpury CEO James Forrester told the BBC they have the best women’s pathway in the world.
“What the players are creating here is something special. It would mean everything to win,” says head coach Sean Lynn, whose recruitment of Test forwards Monaghan, Matthews, Beckett and Maud Muir last summer was a game changer.
Lock Aldcroft added: “It would be a massive relief [to win] because of all the hard work that we’ve put into this year. It would be amazing for us as a club and a team to build that rugby environment around Gloucester.”
So who wins it, which new name is going on the trophy? Gloucester-Hartpury, with their fortified pack of forwards and roared on by a ‘home’ crowd, or Exeter Chiefs, going for a double and looking to bury the pain of last year’s final against Saracens?
We are talking wafer-thin margins here but for Gloucester, only Beckett, a winner with Harlequins in 2021, has played in a Premier 15s final. Exeter are full of players looking to put the hurt of 2022 to bed.
There was something in Chiefs’ resilience in the semi-final, their composure and 24 phases at the death when they needed to be faultless and score, that makes you think this could be their time. Exeter to edge what could be a classic.
Teams for Gloucester-Hartpury v Exeter Chiefs
Gloucester-Hartpury Emma Sing; Ellie Rugman, Rachel Lund, Tatyana Heard, Mia Venner; Lleucu George, Mo Hunt (co-capt); Maud Muir, Kelsey Jones, Laura Delgado, Sam Monaghan, Zoe Aldcroft (co-capt), Alex Matthews, Bethan Lewis, Sarah Beckett.
Replacements: 16 Connie Powell, 17 Kathryn Buggy, 18 Sisilia Tuipulotu, 19 Maya Learned, 20 Neve Jones, 21 Bianca Blackburn, 22 Sophie Bridger, 23 Lisa Neumann.
Exeter Chiefs Merryn Doidge; Eilidh Sinclair, Kate Zachary, Gabby Cantorna, Claudia MacDonald; Liv McGoverne, Flo Robinson; Hope Rogers, Emily Tuttosi, Daleaka Menin, Nichola Fryday, Poppy Leitch (capt), Edel McMahon, Maisy Allen, Rachel Johnson.
Replacements: 16 Cliodhna Moloney, 17 Silvia Turani, 18 Charli Jacoby, 19 Abbie Fleming, 20 Ebony Jefferies, 21 Mairi McDonald, 22 Robyn Wilkins, 23 Katie Buchanan.
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