Bristol stun Saracens to reach Premiership Women’s Rugby final against Gloucester-Hartpury

Reneeqa Bonner - Bristol hold firm to make first Premiership Women's Rugby final
Reneeqa Bonner's try with just four minutes to go gave Bristol the breathing space they needed to make the final - Getty Images/Ryan Hiscott

Saracens Women 21 Bristol Bears Women 29

It was a record-breaking afternoon for Bristol Bears Women, coming from behind at half-time to not only book their place in the Premiership Women’s Rugby final for the first time, but also becoming the first side in competition history to win a semi-final away from home. Having come up short at this stage in the past two seasons, Bristol would not be denied this time.

Hannah Botterman and Holly Aitchison, the two England internationals signed from Saracens before the start of the season, played major roles in their former team’s defeat. Yet the winning moment ultimately went to England Under-20 wing Reneeqa Bonner, who burned Saracens’ Zoe Harrison on the outside with four minutes left. Her try put Bristol more than one score ahead.

Lark Atkin-Davies, the England hooker, finished with a hat-trick and almost had a fourth, with Bristol fixing their lineout in the second half and using that punishing set-piece to take control of the game.

“We trained so hard all season, this past week has been non-stop relentless. And we’re in the final – I’m so proud of every single person,” said the player of the match, Bristol’s Rownita Marston-Mulhearn. “As soon as we got into the top four, no one thought we were going to win. No one had won an away semi-final but look, here we are. We’ve broken the curse.”

Bristol players cannot hide their joy at making the final
Bristol players cannot hide their joy at making the final - Getty Images/Paul Harding

As was the case for much of the first half, Saracens were in control only for Bristol to come up with last-ditch turnovers. But there was no stopping a slick strike move for the game’s opening try, Coreen Grant finishing in the corner despite a valiant effort in the tackle from Deborah Wills. Followed by McKinley Hunt’s powerful finish, Saracens were in control, only for an Atkin-Davies maul try before the break to give Bristol hope.

From the moment the second half began, however, Bristol were in charge, building off good carries by props Botterman and Simi Pam, with Atkin-Davies adding a second score from the maul. Making use of the wind through Keira Bevan’s box-kicking, Bristol then went ahead for the first time through Courtney Keight’s try out wide.

A deliberate knock-on by Bonner meant Saracens snatched back the lead, with Bristol down to 14 players, but it turned out to be a blip in Bristol’s dominant second half. Saracens picked up two yellow cards themselves for Leanne Infante and Emma Taylor after Atkin-Davies’ hat-trick try, before Bonner’s solo effort sent Bristol to the final.

‌Match details

Scoring sequence: 5-0 Grant try, 7-0 Harrison con, 12-0 Hunt try, 14-0 Harrison con, 14-5 Atkin-Davies try, 14-10 Atkin-Davies try, 14-12 Reed con, 14-17 Keight try, 21-17 Penalty try Saracens, 21-22 Atkin-Davies try, 21-24 Reed con, 21-29 Bonner try
Saracens Women: J Breach; C Grant (L Clapp 62), S Gregson (S Bridger 78), S McKenna, P Farries; Z Harrison, E Wyrwas (L Infante 65); M Hunt (A Gondwe 46), M Campbell (B Field 73), K Clifford (D Rose 56), M Evans (L McMillan 73), E Taylor, S de Goede, M Packer (c), P Cleall (S Kasolo 73) Yellow cards: Infante 73, Taylor 74
Bristol Bears Women: E Lovibond (M Smith 67); R Bonner, P Murray, H Aitchison, D Wills (C Keight 29); A Reed, K Bevan (L Burgess 79); S Pam, L Atkin-Davies, H Botterman, D Burns (H Cunningham 65), A Ward, A Butchers, E Gallagher, R Marston-Mulhearn,Not used: J Sprague, H Phillips, E Marston-Mulhearn, G Nigrelli, Yellow card: R Bonner 55

Ruthless Gloucester-Hartpury book ticket to Sandy Park final

Ellie Rugman of Gloucester-Hartpury celebrates victory
Gloucester-Hartpury have a final to look forward to - Getty Images/Cameron Smith

Gloucester-Hartpury 50 Exeter Chiefs 19

Given the ruthless manner in which the Cherry and Whites circus rolled into town to swat aside an off-colour Exeter Chiefs outfit, Gloucester-Hartpury’s quest for a back-to-back title remains well and truly alive.

There might have been a major upset in North London after Bristol stunned Saracens to reach their maiden Premiership Women’s Rugby final, but there was no repeat of such drama in the West Country.

Gloucester-Hartpury’s fluency in attack has been unmatched this season, but it is their ability to win the collision battle and their efficient offloading game that has moulded them into such an irrepressible force. They will be favourites to lift the trophy on June 22.

In a relentless first half that yielded four tries inside the opening half hour, they made a very good Exeter Chiefs side look ordinary en route to completing an eight-try annihilation that had echoes of a Red Roses rout.

One particular player engineered most of their go-forward in attack. Maud Muir has unlocked another level of her game this season and her rampaging runs and defensive efforts were a microcosm of how the hosts ripped their Devonian opponents apart.

Her burst into the red zone set the platform for Lleucu George’s first score inside two minutes, before she crashed under the posts minutes after the break. When she later flung a pass to Sarah Beckett, who was loitering in the wider channels and would slide over for the hosts’ sixth, the pair resembled more a centre-wing double act than a prop and lock combo.

“I give these girls a bit of a licence to inspire – that’s our main pillar,” said head coach Sean Lynn. “Everything we’ve worked on just clicked for us today.”

Exeter restored pride of sorts through three second-half scores, but had no answer to the magnificence of Gloucester’s mighty back-row.

Their head coach, Susie Appleby, used the occasion to once again take aim at the league’s stringent rules on English qualified players, having been forced to drop Japanese star Kanako Kobayashi and two Irish standouts in Edel McMahon and Nichola Fryday.

“I had to say to a few of my players, ‘I’m really sorry you’re not playing this weekend because you’re Irish,” said a dejected Appleby. “How s--- is that? But all I feel is pride. It’s not us throwing toys out the pram, but it’s a shame that these players at critical times in the season can’t show people what they’re made of.”

Match details

Scoring sequence 5-0 George try, 7-0 Sing con, 12-0 Jones try, 17-0 George try, 19-0 Sing con, 24-0 Hendy try, 26-0 Sing con, 31-0 Muir try, 33-0 Sing con, 33-5 Johnson try, 33-7 Wilkins con, 38-7 Beckett try, 43-7 Sing try, 48-7 Tuipulotu try, 50-7 Sing con, 50-12 Moloney try, 50-14 Tessier con, 50-19 Buchanan try.

Gloucester-Hartpury: E Sing; M Venner, H Jones (R Lund 53), T Heard, P Hendy; L George (M Hyett 64), N Hunt (B Blackburn 64); M Carson (E Perry 44), N Jones (A Dale 65), M Muir (C Castellucci 59), S Beckett (S Tuipulotu 59), S Monaghan (K Williams 53), G Brock, B Lewis, Z Aldcroft.

Exeter Chiefs: A Tessier; K Buchanan, M Doidge, G Cantorna (N Brennan 34), E Sinclair; R Wilkins (T Bricknell 65), Brooke Bradley; D Swann (H Sams 62), E Tuttosi (C Moloney 52), D Menin (L Hanlon 62), L van der Velden, P Leitch, E Jefferies (M Feaunati 41), M Allen (H Millar-Mills 41), R Johnson (N Orchard 62).

Ref: Harry Walbaum
Att: 3,942