Gloucester-Hartpury beat Bristol to win back-to-back PWR titles

Zoe Aldcroft (L) Mo Hunt (R) – Gloucester-Hartpury beat Bristol to win back-to-back titles
Glouceter-Hartpury went into the final as favourites, having won 15 out of their 16 leagues games in the regular season - Getty Images/Ryan Hiscott

Gloucester-Hartpury 36 Bristol Bears 24

In the end, the journey to back-to-back titles became a procession for Gloucester-Hartpury. Top of the league for the whole season, with just a solitary loss, at full-time the team known as the Circus turned full carnival, having overcome the sloppiness of the first half to swat Bristol Bears aside and once again hoist the Premiership Women’s Rugby trophy aloft.

Although the attendance at a sun-kissed Sandy Park failed to match the organisers’ 10,000 target, this was some Devonian occasion. A West Country stadium, a West Country derby, and the stands bustling with the sound of partisan conviviality.

But the day belonged to Gloucester-Hartpury who, in a nine-try match overturned a 10-point half-time deficit to take the spoils, with no team able to keep them off the podium for a second consecutive season.

“I’m absolutely over the moon,” said Sean Lynn, Gloucester-Hartpury head coach. “I couldn’t be more proud of this squad … the future is looking bright and I’m very happy.

“We’ve been in some dark places [this season]. The big theme today was winning moments. That second half, we did.”

At half-time, the favourites trailed by 17-7 and looked ragged and rattled; indeed, it was the first time they’d trailed after 40 minutes all season. With the irrepressible Hannah Botterman and Holly Aitchison at the helm for Bristol, Gloucester-Hartpury were being out-thought, outfought and only a significant change of application was going to turn the second-half tide.

Gloucester-Hartpury lock Sarah Beckett was the official player of the match but the resurgence was spear-headed by the magnificent Bethan Lewis. The Welsh openside’s breakdown work in the second half allowed Gloucester-Hartpury to dominate possession and change the disciplinary picture, too.

In the first half, the favourites conceded nine penalties to Bristol’s one, with Bears head coach Dave Ward rueing his side’s inability to “adapt quickly to the referee’s changing interpretation”.

“We didn’t change with her,” said Ward. “We had to adapt quicker than they did and we didn’t. They punished us. Fair play to them.

“We’ve continued to get better every season. The only way we can get better next season is by winning it. That’s our challenge as a club. It’s going to be a tricky one to swallow tonight and the next few weeks but we can’t think about it too long. We’ll be playing that first league game before we know it.”

By the time Hannah Jones was strolling in Gloucester-Hartpury’s fifth try, it capped off a 25-minute period of total rugby tyranny. After half-time, Gloucester scored five tries in 27 minutes – one was bizarrely ruled out by the Television Match Official – with Bristol only managing a late consolation through Ella Lovibond.

The most optimistic of Bears fans dreamt of a comeback for the ages but, after a phenomenal first-half effort, they were well beaten. After 80 minutes, the trophy was in the hands of those two dearest pals, Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt and Zoe Aldcroft.

“It was very calm [at half-time], added Lynn. “The big message was: have that belief … we just needed to exit a bit more with the ball in hand … and that worked very well. That was a very good Bristol first half. Full credit to them.”

As the teams emerged to fireworks at Sandy Park, Bristol had one or two explosions of their own up their sleeves, opening with as patient and accurate a phase-play try as one is likely to see this weekend. The Bears stretched Gloucester-Hartpury this way and that before bludgeoning through the middle. Botterman’s burst left Sam Monaghan needing the stretcher to depart, and after 23 gruelling phases Courtney Keight struck. It was no more than the outsiders deserved.

Gloucester-Hartpury, rocked by Bristol’s maul ascendancy and their adventurous spirit, had to muster a response. Thankfully, when Lewis cut a devilish line in midfield and offloaded inside to Hunt, they did. With Sing’s conversion, however, the favourites found themselves with a lead which was not entirely deserved.

No question, the first half belonged to Bristol. Before the half-time break, with Gloucester-Hartpury’s discipline deteriorating, two more tries were added: Lark Atkin-Davies burrowed over from a maul and Botterman muscled over from close range. “Our front row were incredible in that first half,” added Ward.

For all that the first half was undoubtedly Bristol’s, the second was emphatically Gloucester-Hartpury’s. Some heroic Bears defence began the half – particularly Atkin-Davies and Keight – but once the dam burst, the water gushed. Lleucu George began pulling strings and her two looping passes gave Pip Hendy and Emma Sing tries. Sing converted both from the touchline before later adding a penalty. Mia Venner put daylight between the sides with Jones capping off Gloucester-Hartpury’s purple patch.

Mia Venner – Gloucester-Hartpury beat Bristol to win back-to-back titles
Mia Venner races through to score for Gloucester-Hartpury - Getty Images/Ryan Hiscott

In the end, it was never in doubt, and next season it will take a fabulous side to stop Gloucester-Hartpury from turning this double into a dynasty.