Gloucester-Hartpury seal comeback against Bristol to retain PWR title

<span>Natasha Hunt and Zoe Aldcroft lift the trophy after Gloucester Hartpury’s victory over Bristol.</span><span>Photograph: Harry Trump/Getty Images</span>
Natasha Hunt and Zoe Aldcroft lift the trophy after Gloucester Hartpury’s victory over Bristol.Photograph: Harry Trump/Getty Images

Table-topping Gloucester-Hartpury finished 18 points ahead of Bristol, but for a while here it seemed simple maths is not the Bears’ strong point. Dave Ward’s outfit performed like champions in the first half against opponents who defeated them twice during the regular season, but Gloucester-Hartpury overturned a 10-point half-time deficit for their second consecutive PWR title.

The full-back, Emma Sing, scored 16 points – a try, a penalty and four conversions – in a sensational display and Gloucester-Hartpury were crushingly dominant after half-time. The reigning champions had surprisingly been outscored by three tries to one before the break when the England front-row, Hannah Botterman, was in particularly destructive form. Gloucester-Hartpury also shrugged off a controversial TMO decision that denied them an early second-half score.

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“It was very calm,” said Gloucester-Hartpury’s head coach, Sean Lynn, of their half-time conversation. “The big message was to have belief. Full credit to Bristol, that was an outstanding first half, but how we reacted is what I’m very proud of.”

On a glorious Devon day defences had started on top. Evie Gallagher’s supreme jackalling won a penalty for Bristol, while at the other end, Sam Monaghan executed a try-saving tackle on Abbie Ward.

The deadlock was broken spectacularly after 17 minutes via a 23-phase Bristol score with Botterman’s physicality and skill prominent. Courtney Keight finished, released by Gallagher, after Holly Aitchison’s authoritative distribution.

Bristol’s Sarah Bern won another a breakdown penalty and Gloucester-Hartpury were feeling the heat, particularly when Monaghan was forced off injured after 18 minutes. But they were not cowed.

Bethan Lewis and Sarah Beckett set up Natasha Hunt to storm under the posts, Sing converting to put the champions on the board. But Bristol seamlessly switched to simple forward grunt with Lark Atkin-Davies rounding off a strong short-range drive to restore their lead.

Again the Bears smoothly switched gears, slick handling allowing Botterman to power over and create that 10-point half-time advantage. Hardly surprising as Bristol had given up one penalty to their opponents’ nine.

The Bears hoped for a solid second-half start but were denied when Lewis crashed over. The referee, Sara Cox, awarded the try which was converted but the TMO, Nikki O’Donnell, persuaded her to reverse the decision.

Pip Hendy soon darted over to reduce the deficit and a superb conversion by Sing dragged Gloucester to within three. No TMO check this time. It was all Cherry and Whites now and they led when Sing bashed over after a lovely pass by Lleucu George before converting her own score.

Mia Venner raced in for Gloucester-Hartpury’s fourth, again teed up by George, and suddenly it was 26-17. Hannah Jones, the outside centre, capitalised on more slick handling after a quick lineout to flop over for the fifth, making it 24 second-half points unanswered.

Ella Lovibond, a Bristol replacement, sprinted over and Reed converted to reduce the gap but there was no denying Gloucester-Hartpury. Sing rounded off her virtuoso performance with a late penalty.

“It’s going to be a tricky one to swallow,” said Ward. “But we can’t think about it too long as the season begins in about eight weeks’ time. We’ll be playing that first league game before we know it.”

Of the champions’ second-half onslaught the No 8, Zoe Aldcroft, said: “I was super-relieved. Once we had that ball in our hand and we started attacking, there was no way they could stop us. Absolute credit to the girls for coming out and really fighting … and credit to Bristol, because they came absolutely flying out in that first half. They were ready for a final.”