Saracens beaten 25-17 in dramatic final at Kingsholm
Harlequins crowned Premier 15s champions
As the final whistle blew, Rachael Burford hopped onto the pitch with her crutches raised aloft in delight.
The Harlequins captain had lasted only nine minutes of the Allianz Premier 15s final before being forced off with a knee injury, but nothing would stop her joining in the celebrations.
At the third time of asking, Harlequins are English champions. Twice before they have faced Saracens in this final and twice they have lost, but they triumphed 25-17 at Kingsholm to finally get their hands on the trophy – and they had to work for it.
They may have dominated the first half but the pendulum had swung firmly in Saracens’ direction entering the final 15 minutes. Quins had two players sent to the sin-bin within 30 seconds of each other – Amy Cokayne and Abbie Ward – and Sarries quickly narrowed the gap to only five points.
Yet Quins managed that ten-minute period with a two-player disadvantage superbly to close out an historic victory and spark jubilation from Burford and her team-mates.
The basis of that victory was built early on. The first quarter was all Quins; there was only one team in it. Saracens barely escaped their own half as Quins capitalised on their opponents’ ill-discipline and errors.
Sarries’ breakdown work was broken in the eyes of referee Sara Cox as they hit double figures for penalties conceded during the match. That inability to adapt to the referee’s interpretations, combined with chargedowns and missed touches, allowed Quins to first dominate territory and then the scoreboard.
Lagi Tuima gave Quins a 6-0 lead after 11 minutes as she slotted two penalties, then it was the power of their maul that came to the fore.
Abbie Ward directed operations at the lineout and Cokayne touched down twice in five minutes as the maul rolled over the line.
There was some debate over the first try, with the TMO called into check whether any backs had joined the maul, which is not permitted under the adapted Covid-19 laws used in the Premier 15s, but the officials deemed they had not affected the score and the try stood.
After 23 minutes it was 16-0 to Quins – but Sarries then showed their ruthlessness in scoring from their first opportunity.
From the restart, Tuima was charged down by Emma Taylor and then it was Quins who found themselves on the wrong side of the referee. There were a series of pick-and-goes close to the line, before Sarries moved the ball slightly further out and Marlie Packer crossed. Zoe Harrison added the conversion and they were back in the game.
Tuima added another penalty just before the break to give Quins a 19-7 half-time lead, and she extended it further with another kick at goal early in the second period as that penalty count continued to dog Sarries and Bryony Cleall was yellow-carded.
Packer and the defending champions were not ready to loosen their grip on the trophy, though, and back they came.
In the 50th minute they were awarded a free-kick at a scrum, Poppy Cleall broke from the back and got close to scoring before Packer was on hand to dot the ball down once again.
Six minutes later and they were up against only 13 players following that double sin-binning, and Sophie de Goede found space out wide to get that third try and narrow the gap to just five points.
Saracens couldn’t get any closer, though. Quins’ game management – and their ability to win penalties at the breakdown – saw them through the rest of that period. Tuima kicked another penalty so that Saracens would need to score twice to take the lead, and those wearing red and black were let down again by their discipline and execution.
They made breaks and got close but ultimately couldn’t retain possession or gain a territorial foothold. And when Quins were back to a full complement, they produced a masterclass in keeping hold of the ball for multiple phases, with Shaunagh Brown carrying as strongly in those final minutes as she had in the opening ones.
Little wonder that the England prop was named Player of the Match – and she gave a powerful interview afterwards.
A word, too, for Burford. She may not have been on the pitch for long but her influence runs throughout this squad and from the touchline she continued to offer advice and celebrated every decision that went Quins’ way.
“We had complete confidence and belief that if we did the job right we knew we’d come away with the victory,” said Burford. “I’m so proud of how we dug in right to the end.
“I said before kick-off to leave nothing in the tank, to play for each other, have desire for each other, and I’m really proud we managed to finish like that.”
The World Cup winner also showed great skill – and balance – to lift the trophy on one foot!
Harlequins: Chloe Rollie; Heather Cowell, Lagi Tuima, Rachael Burford (captain, Izzy Mayhew 9), Beth Wilcock (Rosie Dobson 62-67); Emily Scott, Leanne Riley; Vickii Cornborough, Amy Cokayne, Shaunagh Brown, Abbie Ward, Fi Fletcher, Lauren Brooks (Emily Robinson 51), Katy Mew, Sarah Beckett.
Tries: Cokayne 17, 23. Pens: Tuima 8, 11, 31, 43, 60.
Sin-bin: Cokayne 56min, Ward 56min.
Saracens: Sarah McKenna; Sydney Gregson (Alysha Corrigan 51), Hannah Casey (Rachel Laqeretabua 14, Donna Rose 48-52), Holly Aitchison, Lotte Clapp (captain); Zoe Harrison, Emma Swords (Eloise Hayward 43); Hannah Botterman (Rocky Clark 65), May Campbell (Jodie Rettie 52), Bryony Cleall (Donna Rose 52), Sophie de Goede, Emma Taylor (Georgia Evans 43), Vicky Fleetwood (Rosie Galligan 61), Marlie Packer, Poppy Cleall.
Tries: Packer 27, 50, de Goede 57. Con: Harrison 27.
Sin-bin: B Cleall 42min.
Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.