Leicester Tigers fell short in a close match with a star-studded Bristol Bears team. The game summed up the side’s season thus far, early scores allowing the visitors to establish a foothold before Tigers fought back and almost drew level, the team characterised by, at times, unplayable attacking dynamism. However, as has been the case in 2023/24, the more experienced side took a firm grip of the closing stages to pull away and leaving the team wondering what could have been.
An unfortunate knock on from kick off puts the side on the back foot early but the defence holds well and from a subsequent scrum, then Tigers front row hold steady against their international compatriots, a perfect platform for attack.
And attack they do, Meg Jones cutting back inside and hitting Amelia Tutt on a storming line. The Wales international is starting her first Premiership game for Tigers today and she wastes no time making an impact, speeding through a gap and then powering through trailing arms to make it to the half way line. The ruck speed is lightning and a slick move out the back from a returning Roisin McBrien nearly puts Elis Martin through a hole, but for an unfortunate knock on.
From there, Bears look to attack but Tigers’ defence tracks across well, lead by scrum half Amy Relf, with Francesca McGhie taking a big hand off to the face but dragging down her opposite number, moments before Tutt defends well on the opposite wing, Bears clearly keen to spread the ball wide and early.
Bears are relentless in these opening phases, despite the early loss of talismanic prop Sarah Bern to injury, hitting constant lines and making gainline metres. They make it all the way to the Tigers try line and believe they’ve scored but the referee consults the TMO who adjudicates the ball held up.
Tigers clear their lines and actually keep building well, earning a penalty just in their own half which is then kicked to touch outside Bears 22. However, the line out awry and Bears break again.
This time it seems they must score, wing Meg Varley storming through in space. She’s got clear air in front of her but somehow, less than a metre out, a tracking back McGhie at full tilt heroically makes the tackle and forces the wing to knock on.
But the ball is still in a very dangerous area. Although Tigers win the scrum and clear the ball, Bears fire right back and they dummy the short lines to send the ball wide out the back and allowing Deborah Wills to go over for the game’s opening try.
From here it’s groundhog day all over again, as Bears’ next two scores reflect the first; the second see’s Fray and Fran make a great turnover in midfield before the team loses the ball and the visitors break, wing Varley making no mistake this time as she touches down from space out wide.
For their third, Roisin McBrien, on her first start after recovering from a broken hand, had made a booming tackle to force a knock on in midfield and turn the ball over. However, after a couple of phases of attack, the ball’s stripped and centre Meryl Smith storms through to score beneath the posts.
Finally, after a ten minute period of Bears dominance, Tigers strike back. Leah Bartlett makes the difference initially, a big turnover in midfield allowing her side the ball. They build phases until they’re just metres out from the line, with the penalty. The ball kicked to touch, a slick line out move right to the back is hauled down before it gets rumbling and the team earn a penalty five metres out. However, following a kick to touch, the not straight is called and the ball is lost and cleared away. Tigers refuse to be denied though and strong carries across the park from Bartlett and Fray allow Tigers to advance before the side win another penalty. From there, the ball is sent to the back once again and the rolling maul is on, hooker Elis Martin diving over to touch down for her second try in as many matches, her third in Tigers colours.
It looks like the home team have the wind in their sails as the side’s get ready to go in for half time but a last second score from the visitors puts a dampener on things, lock Delaney Burns stretching long to touch down as the whistle goes for the half.
Half time score: Leicester Tigers 5 – 26 Bristol Bears
The second half sees Tigers off to a storming start and dominate the ball from the whistle. Steaming out the blocks, the side are relentless in their attack, hard carries coming in from all over the park, back threes Tutt, McGhie and Caz Collie just as involved as the relentless forwards.
Substitute Claire Gallagher, now on for her Tigers debut, tries a cheeky cross field kick with the team in a dangerous position but it’s just shy of reaching the stretching McGhie. But Tigers come right back and, after a couple of yellow cards in quick succession for Bears, they drive over, Tahlia Brody picking and going from the base of the scrum.
Now the team’s really starting to purr and Bears look all at sea; slick moves out the back are causing problems and the home side begin to probe across the park.
It looks like the pressure has told and Tigers are right back in as swift hands out the back to playmaker Meg Jones and then a looping ball puts McGhie in space inside her own half. The flying wing has lots to do but also has the speed and skill to pull it off, a step of ethereal guile as she glides past her opposite number and puts on the afterburners to dive over. However, the TMO is asking for a word with the referee and the celebrations are cut short as the try is finally judged to have included a forward pass in the build up.
This was the match's true turning point. A devestating decision that took the wind right out of Tigers sails, from being within a try of the lead finding themselves right back inside their own half, with a scrum for the opposition. These are the kinds of fine margins that have cost the team thus far.
Bears have the wind with them following the decision and they attack in numbers here, Tigers fronting up strong in defence, a couple of huge driving shots from substitute Tanya Bird and a wicked spear from Tutt keeping the visitors at a distance.
Eventually the pressure tells and, following a line out, Red Rose fly half Holly Aitchison, on from the bench, grubbers through and collects her own kick, touching down beneath the posts.
Just minutes later, a second blow puts the game to bed, Bears slick attack looks to go over but a deliberate knock on from Caz Collie, and subsequent yellow card, means the visitors are awarded a penalty try.
From here, the visitors pull away, two additional tries coming from substitute Tilly Smale, a score in the corner from slick hands and co-captain Abbie Ward, a crashing drive from short range following a line out. Credit must go to the visitors who showed excellence at many points throughout and will certainly be in the title mix come the end of the season.
Tigers fought all the way to the end and McGhie came a hair away from another score after a chip and chase from halfway but it wasn’t to be today. That determination and relentless hard work will come good for Tigers at some point. But, it was not this day.