Saracens Women 34 Exeter Chiefs Women 21
Saracens staged a compelling comeback to end Exeter Chiefs’ seven-match winning streak in the Premier 15s in a game which saw the league leaders reduced to 13 players at one point.
The hosts looked to be heading for their second defeat this season against high-flying Chiefs after squandering a 10-point lead when May Campbell and Eloise Hayward were shown yellow within minutes of each other in the first half.
But the reigning Premier 15s champions overcame their own indiscipline setbacks to produce a dominant second half display epitomised by Lotte Clapp’s sumptuous try, while fly-half Zoe Harrison was imperious from the tee all afternoon.
Further scores from Donna Rose, Vicky Fleetwood and May Campbell were enough for the hosts to avenge the defeat they suffered to the Premier 15s newcomers at Sandy Park last January, the magnitude of which was not lost on Alex Austerberry, the Saracens director of rugby.
“Ultimately, that’s a play off game,” he said. “We had a chance to put a real big dint in a big team – the most in-form team in the league and we’ve got the result we needed. You’d rather knock them out now then meet them again – that’s a bit of a diplomatic way of putting it.”
Exeter’s lightning starts and dogged defensive play have been a cornerstone of their winning mentality of late, but on Saracens’ home turf they looked sluggish and lacked their usual flair.
It was the hosts’ indiscipline at the breakdown in the first half rather than any moment of brilliance from the visitors which handed the Chiefs a foothold in the game.
After Rachel Johnson’s sniping try, they wasted no time in capitalising when Saracens found themselves with 13 on the pitch. Sachiko Kato burrowed over and Johnson helped herself to her second from close range.
They had a golden opportunity to put the game to bed after mounting a 21-10 lead, but a mammoth defensive effort from the hosts saw the Chiefs held up over the line as raucous cheers erupted from the Saracens pack. The moment ultimately tilted the momentum in Saracens favour and they went on to condemn Exeter to a pointless second half.
With fourth-placed Wasps earning a crucial 36-14 victory away at Loughborough Lightning, Susie Appleby, the Exeter head coach, conceded her side’s first defeat of 2021 signalled the end of their play off hopes.
“We’re really dissapointed but that’s because we have high expectations now,” said Appleby, who cut a dejected figure after the game. “When we started this campaign, had we had that scoreline against Saracens, we’d probably have been alright. Things are different now. That’s the end of our top four – the play offs are gone now.”
Saracens’ victory was all the more impressive given they were without their talismanic forward pairing of Poppy Cleall and Marlie Packer, who both were absent through injury.
“It’s nice to know a big gap between last season and this, very fragmented season, that we’ve not lost that edge,” added Austerberry. “That’s the first time I’ve seen them properly shining.”
Scoring sequence: 3-0 (Harrison, pen) 8-0 (Rose, try) 10-0 (Harrison, con) 10-5 (Johnson, try) 10-7 (Cantorna con) 10-12 (Kato, try) 10-14 (Cantorna con) 10-19 (Johnson, try) 10-21 (Cantorna con) 13-21 (Harrison, pen) 18-21 (Clapp, try) 20-21 (Harrison, con) 25-21 (Fleetwood, try) 27-21 (Harrison, con) 32-21 (Campbell, try) 34-21 (Harrison, con).
Saracens Women: S McKenna; E Uren (Miell 60), A Corrigan (Casey 49), L Martin, L Clapp; Z Harrison, E Hayward (Swords 47); R Clark (Clifford 60), M Campbell (Carson 49), D Rose (Clealle 45); R Galligan, E Taylor, G Evans, V Fleetwood, S De Goede.
Replacements: M Carson, K Clifford, B Cleall, T Taylor, S Green, E Swords, H Casey, C Miell. Booked: Campbell, Hayward.
Exeter Chiefs Women: N Terry; M Doidge, K Zackary, G Cantrona, G Mackinder; P Garcia, F Robinson; O Demerchant (Delgado 49), E Tuttosi, S Kato; P Leitch, M Hunt, E Jefferies, R Johnson, L Van der Velden.
Replacements: J Kitlinski, M Roberts, L Delgado, A Fleming, R Moynihan, M Davies, L Sheehan, L Burgess.
Referee: Nikki O’Donnell.