MATCH REPORT: Exeter Chiefs Women 17-12 Loughborough Lightning.
Online Sport Editor, Elise Hamersley, and Print Screen Editor, Olivia Garrett, report from Sandy Park as Exeter Chiefs Women cling on to win against Loughborough Lightning
After a loss against Saracens last weekend that ended Exeter’s seven game winning streak, Chiefs came into Saturday’s match against Lightning with something to prove. Susie Appleby’s side were looking to come out of their debut season with at least one win against each team in this year’s Premier15s. Despite a last minute Loughborough surge, they did just that.
A strong first half from Exeter Chiefs started with some frenetic opening minutes.
Both sides gave away a series of penalties, but Exeter’s McKinley Hunt brought back the discipline by expertly stripping England international Emily Scarratt and charging towards their 22. A phase later Lightning would give away another penalty for not releasing, setting star centre Gabby Cantorna up for a kick through the posts. 3-0 by in the sixth minute.
Hunt later shone again with a perfectly timed break off Chiefs’ second lineout of the day at the half way line. After finding the gap she took full advantage of the opportunity to make crucial metres, breaking into Loughborough’s 22.
Exeter capitalised nicely off this break by maintaining momentum and eroding the Lightning defence through several secure phases. It was flanker Rachel Johnson who finally grounded the ball over the line with a signature pick and go in the eleventh minute. Converted easily by Cantorna (10-0).
Scrum half Flo Robinson had a chance to stretch her legs after the reset with two snipes, one of which afforded Chiefs an extra 10 metres. This work unfortunately undone as Doidge couldn’t quite keep ball in hand.
In the second quarter Loughborough made life a bit harder for Exeter with some quick play. Nonetheless Zackary found her way through after Chiefs regained possession and gave an excellent offload to Cantorna. They failed again to capitalise as the next pass went to ground.
Delgado replaced de Merchant for Chiefs in the 27th minute while Loughborough continued to maintain a strong defence and increase the use of their backs to gain ground on the edges.
Chiefs responded well in the final minutes of the first half with some excellent heads up rugby off a lineout. It was Garcia who found a line with a chip kick through the Loughborough defence which was finished brilliantly by Laura Sheehan on her first start for Chiefs. Converted successfully by Cantorna bringing the score to 17-0
HALF TIME: Exeter Chiefs 17-0 Loughborough Lightning
An exciting second half saw a slight loss of focus from Exeter Chiefs which, despite Susie Appleby’s deafening calls for ‘discipline’, allowed a fight back from the rejuvenated Loughborough side. By relying on their strong kicking game, the visitors were continuously able to find space in Exeter’s defence and spent most of the half within the Chiefs’ 22.
Chiefs appeared to be rushing right from the get-go as a strong carry from Hunt almost all the way to the Loughborough 22, was let down by failure to keep the ball in hand.
The first ten minutes saw several replacements for Lightning, the most significant of which was the replacement of number 9 Ella Wyrwas with Megan Davey. Despite the scrum-half’s excellent performance in the first half, her replacement would definitely prove her worth as the match progressed.
A great lineout for Loughborough within 10 metres of the Exeter try line saw the ball spun wide and fed strongly from Rowland to number 11 Isla Alejandro; a tactic that saw her hauled down just short of the line in the 43rd minute. From there a reset scrum resulted in a penalty for Exeter after Loughborough were penalised for wheeling the scrum. But this opportunity was rather wasted as, rather than kick to touch, seasoned Spanish International Garcia chose to tap the ball and pass it, much to the bemusement of her Head Coach.
From this point any attempt by Exeter to get the ball out of their 22 failed with Loughborough repeatedly back in possession. In the 48th minute, a kick from Robinson was caught by the Lightning 23 Nina Vistisen, a move that gave Loughborough the advantage and resulted in a brilliant break from Daleaka Menin. Menin’s lightning-fast (pardon the pun) pass to Davey, saw her sail over the try-line, finally getting Loughborough on the board. The score was then sweetened further by a predictable conversion from Emily Scarratt. 17-7 by minute 50.
Play was stopped in the 64th minute due to an injury to Exeter’s Rachel Johnson, who has since been taken to hospital, with a suspected dislocation.
In an attempt to reignite the spark in Exeter and bring some freshness to the last three minutes, the 67th minute saw Meg Davies, Michaella Roberts and Abbie Fleming replace Flo Robinson, Sachiko Kato, and Johnson.
It was in the eleventh hour of the game, however, that Chiefs really lost sense of their position. With ten points on the visitors, all they needed was to keep hold of ball to retain a strong win. Yet at the 70th minute Exeter sent the ball wide, an action that resulted in Exeter’s Laura Sheehan being penalised for holding on. This mistake of not releasing was then oddly repeated by Exeter, giving Loughborough the penalty, and allowing Rowland to kick the ball to corner. From there, Lightning mauled their way to the try line and passed to the blind side, allowing Rowland to score their second try. Well into the extra time, Loughborough’s second conversion was missed leaving the score at 17-12 to Exeter.
FULL TIME: Exeter Chiefs 17-12 Loughborough Lightning
Six points now separate the sides in the table with two rounds left. Chiefs will face Sale Sharks and Gloucester-Hartpury to round off an incredible debut season.