In a loss more indicative of Bristols quality than Tigers, Leicester can take some positives from their first meeting with a top four side.
In what was always going to be an uphill battle against the Premiership semi-finallists, Tigers battled admirably and even had spells on top that looked like they may pull off an upset.
But it wasn’t to be today, Bears able to wrangle back control and, through a hard-nosed pack and an electric back-three, pull away on the scoreboard.
On a cloudy day in the South-West, there was little trepidation coursing through the Tigers, who were looking forward to today’s matchup.
In this week’s Match Preview, Tom Hudson spoke about the quality today’s opposition would bring. Play-off semi-finalists last year, a host of marquee signings and boasting some of the best facilities in Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby.
This game would allow the side to sharpen their skills against the best: as the saying goes, iron sharpens iron.
It’s Bristol Bears that get us underway and Sydney Mead collects well, the No.8 crashing through a double tackle to get Tigers over the gain line and on the front foot.
Tigers look hungry and they pour in before Amanda Swartz, stepping in at 10 today, throws a couple of dummies allowing Caz Collie time to clear, a Bristol knock to touch allowing Tigers the first chance of the game.
McBrien knocks it back before the ball is sent to DeFilippo on the crash, then another wave of runners, then another. Amy Relf is doing a great job controlling the game, sending in constant one up runners as Tigers make their size count and dominate the contact zone.
The away side continue to threaten. Tigers win a penalty a long way out but former Arsenal Goalkeeper Collie certainly has it in her locker; she has the distance but not the accuracy, sending it just wide.
From the 22 drop out its Collie who collects and switches it up, delicately chipping over the onrushing defence and haring onto it, causing havoc and allowing Tigers to win a penalty on the 22 which is duly kicked to touch, five metres out.
However, the ball is turned over and played out of trouble until cleared long, a big chance spurned.
Amelia Tutt has looked really dangerous in the opening exchanges and here Collie puts her into space for the first time.
She's in a straight sprint with the equally rapid Reneeqa Bonner but the Welsh International still manages to make a good twenty metres. From this Tigers play inward and eventually win the penalty, allowing Collie to open the scoring with a lovely kick from the 22.
As of this point in the match, we’re 10 minutes in and it’s been all Tigers: all of the ball, all in Bristol’s half. They’ve come away with just three points but it feels like it should be more.
But, from kick-off the home side win it back swiftly and the momentum shifts, as it later proves, decisively.
When Bears finally get a foothold, they're flying up, keeping the ball tight and fronting up. Their pack are getting through a lot of work and they get their reward; initially barelling over, they’re held up well by resilient Tigers. However, from the clearing 22 drop out, there’s several skips inside before a hard line from flanker Claire Molloy breaches the line.
Minutes later, we see an inversion, with backs carving through; there’s soft hands to the right touchline to put the rapid Reneeqa Bonner into space, who steps strongly and executes the two on one past the last defender to put full back Jenny Hesketh over.
During this try, debutant Amelia Tutt exits the field with a niggling injury, a tough loss to the backline.
The third, fourth and fifth score really underline Bears class in the back-three area. Bonner and Grace Compton run riot in this spell, their midfield consistently allowing them to be receiving the ball in space and their searing pace is just too much to handle each time.
In amongst these scores, a try is prevented exceptionally well by Swartz; off of a slickly executed backs move, Swartz covers immense ground to tackle Bonner, who's offload is knocked on.
Since the opening 10 minutes, in which Tigers had dominated, the remaining half-hour is played entirely within Tigers’ half.
Leicester have been unable to escape, penned in by accurate handling, hard lines and a pair of thunderbolts on either wing.
First half score: Bristol Bears 29 – 03 Leicester Tigers
Tigers start strongly in the second 40 minutes. After gathering the ball back from their own kick off, the away side carry in: Bears defence is right up in their face but Tigers offload game is running well, Collie, Ofure Ugiagbe (subbed on at the break) and Zoë Evans amongst those carrying hard.
At fly-half, Swartz is doing a good job spreading the ball in what looks like a tactical switch to playing off 10, allowing the side to hit wider runners and avoid the sizable Bears pack.
However, just five minutes in, that pack comes to the fore. Bears win a scrum penalty and kick deep to touch.
From there, their line-out is efficient, jumper straight down and it’s a rolling maul that rumbles over for the opening score of the second period.
The endeavour from Tigers is admirable, despite the result no longer being in doubt: captain McBrien leads the charge from kick-off, smashing back the catcher.
As Bears switch out their props, Churchy Knight and Ugiagbe, swapped on for Tigers walks back the opposition and McBrien is there again to hit the nine. Through their endeavour in defence, Tigers have driven back Bristol 15 metres and allows Tigers to rip play back onto their terms.
For the next 20 minutes, Bristol again cannot get out of their half, the tackling Tigers swarming their opposite numbers and forcing mistakes.
In this time, Tigers have a hatful of attacking opportunities, all of them faltering on the brink of glory; a DeFilippo interception is knocked on, a Lucy Nye chip and chase cruelly bouncing out.
The best move of this period comes from the forwards, a lovely swinging offload from Tanya Bird opens a gap and, with Bristol scrambling, a ranging pass from Nye to Ugiagbe on an overs line allows the prop to pull it inside to a charging Becky Noon who makes 20 metres before being hauled down.
Throughout this period, Noon was seemingly everywhere, providing both excellent carries and staunch defence.
Bristol finally break their streak insdie their own half, breaking out with aplomb, once again bursting through out wide.
Initially Swartz, now moved to fullback as Natasha Jones has entered the field, covers really well once again and a spilled ball allows a scrum reprieve. The scrum do really well, in a dangerous area on their own five metre line and anchor it well to provide a great platform for Nye to clear.
From all that good work, there’s then two tries in two mins, again both times through their dangerous backfield, which uses the space so dangerously and is über clinical when even within a sniff of the whitewash.
In the last 10 minutes it’s all Bears; Swartz hits yet another try saving tackle, her third of the match, while, minutes later, Childs and Collie combine to cover what should be a certain try in the corner.
In the dying moments, as Leicester push for a try, Tash almost puts a perfect punt through for Evans, the wing inches away from flying into open space but it's snaffled by Bears. Noon looks dangerous just moments later but the ball is turned over and, appriopriately, substitute back-three player Millie David scores a ridiculous scorcher of a try, running it from halfway.
As the game comes to a close, Tigers are left to rue what could have been.
What if they had scored a couple of tries in that opening flurry? What if they had managed to quell the early succession of tries from Bears?
But, ultimately, the side will know that there’s no use focusing on these hypotheticals. They can take the positives from a tough game against one of the best sides in all of women’s rugby and go again in two weeks against Exeter Chiefs, in the first match of this season at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.