"We are looking to put things together. What we've done in training; line-outs, scrum, the shape. You can't properly implement these things if you don't have opposition”.
That was Senior Coach Tom Hudson speaking before today’s pre-season fixture against Henley Hawks. The first time the team’s been in a full fifteen a side environment, the match represented not just an excellent opportunity to test out the work done over the last nine weeks of training but also to give all of the squad invaluable pitch time.
The team is due to rotate line-ups each quarter. This ensures that all players will enjoy equal gametime and allows for greater positional experimentation, allowing coaches to see how different players can work together in different ways.
However, this idea was not very courteous to lowly match report writers who must now tackle the tricky task of covering four completely separate teams within a single article. Nevertheless, let’s go.
We kick off here at Henley RFC with the sun beaming down and conditions pristine for a return to rugby.
In conversation with Hudson prior to today's match, he also mentioned how "I believe you can do as much contact training as you want with your teammates, however, it isn't truly authentic. If you want to see how players are in the contact zone, you play a game of rugby".
The contact zone is entered instantaneously as Roisin McBrien puts in a big shot on the catcher, following it up moments later with an astute read on the scrum half pick, allowing Tigers to force a turnover in the opening minute.
The scrum look dominant and, following a strong pair of carries, Tigers look to go wide. They find Kat Turner in space but Henley are across well to cover. Tigers go back inside but, following a succession of carries, McBrien's pop pass is turned over. Now it's Henley who go wide but Zoë Evans covers well and sends her opposite number into touch.
There's great energy on the field today but neither side are able to keep possession for any sustained period, the heat surely playing a part as both sides struggle for consistency.
The first true chance of the game comes seven minutes in as Tigers go close following a fantastic kick to touch from Ellie Turner but the lineout is wayward and Henley claim the ball back.
The second lineout of the game, shortly after, is much better, a picture perfect set-piece and sees McBrien claim the ball high in the air. However, Henley again can turn the ball over and clear ther lines.
But its the third that sees the games opening score. Despite a miscommunication on the throw, Ofure Ugiagbe claims well and drives into contact. Prop partner Jade Jones has the ball slipped to her out the back and she powers over the line to open the scoring for Tigers.
Katie Childs suffers an unfortunate injury (although will return to the field in the fourth quarter). She is replaced by Rebecca De Felippo and the contact zone has absolutely arrived now, the new signing putting in a rib-shattering hit immediately on her opposite number.
Henley's counter ruck game was strong throughout the whole game and another turnover, deep into Tigers territory, sees them try to go wide, a potential try defended well as the ball is snaffled by Louisa Burgham (a late introduction to the starting XV after an injury in the warmup to Charlotte Daley).
Tigers attack is slick down the right hand side from a scrum, De Filippo finding Turner out the back, who can go wide to Burgham but again Henley's defence is excellent and they track the ball well to end the half.
The second quarter begins with an, almost, entirely new XV to that which started the game.
Substitutes Zoe Warrington and Amy Orrow start the quarter strongly, carrying well in midfield to set a great platform for Caz Collie and Charlotte Daley to combine well, forcing a break down the right-hand side, offloads aplenty allowing the team to get just five metres out before another astute turnover from Henley halts the team’s momentum.
This defence doesn’t hold for long, however, as Amanda Swartz scores a blinder of a try down the left-hand side of the pitch.
It’s great covering initially from Amy Relf, who soundly takes a Henley box kick and then looks to distribute to Swartz on the shoulder. The Sweden captain has been moved to full-back for the second period and picks an excellent line, taking the ball at full pace through a gap on the left. There’s still a lot to do and she’s a long way out but her pace is just too much for the opposing full back and Swartz is able to touch down.
Just moments later and Tigers have their third of the game. Warrington has got through a lot of work in her time on the field and another strong carry puts Tigers over the gainline. There’s more action in midfield before the ball is flung to Alana Bainbridge, not to be outdone by her Tigers ticketing office colleague, who also picks a fantastic line to fly into clear space thirty metres out.
There’s opportunity to power over to score by the hooker keeps her composure, fixes the fullback and puts Louisa Burgham over for a try.
The confidence is visbly flowing now and Orrow busts out some real basketball skills, staying on her feet after a couple of tackles and allowing an arm to escape for a lovely offload to McBrien, who is inches away from a try but tackled into touch.
The referee comes back for the initial penalty, however, and this time the away side make no mistake. First, it’s Warrington with a fantastic take from the lineout and the drive is on. A Tigers season has never truly begun until the quintessential rolling maul begins and here Bainbridge gets her reward for an excellent first twenty minutes in green, white and red, at the back of the shove and diving over for a strong end to the first half.
As the third quarter of the game gets underway, Tigers again start with intent, Leilah Mills’ first action of the game sees her collect the ball from kick off and fly in with a bruising carry, brushing off a couple of tackles before being dragged down, to ensure the away side start the second half as they finished the first.
Not long after, Morgan Richardson opens her account for the afternoon. The flanker (incorrectly tweeted as Roisin McBrien on X, apologies Morgan!), scores a lovely try here, receiving the ball a few metres out, dummying the pass and darting through the gap she’s created, touching down even with a pair of defenders hanging off of her.
Again Tigers are quick to follow up with another, this time it’s Charlotte Fray with the try. One of the key features of this match has been Tigers offload game, which again comes into play here. The expansive gameplan again sees Tigers go wide and Orrow, so close to a basketball assist in the first half, sets up a try here, the No. 8 popping back inside for the onrushing Fray to steam over.
This half has seen Tigers start really strongly, flinging the ball around with purpose, with several consistent dynamic running options off of the ball carriers.
However, the next try is Henley’s and it’s actually Molly Draycott who is the catalyst. Last year’s players player of the year is helping the home side out in the second half by filling in on the wing after an unfortunate injury and makes an impact for her new side. Winning a crucial turnover on Tigers’ try line, after the away side had tried to play their way out of trouble, Henley capitalise instantly, sending in a pair of strong runners who drive over to open their account.
But it doesn’t take long for Tigers to seize back control, quick hands are again at play, with especial swiftness coming from Georgie Grimes to Evans but the wing is unfortunate to step into touch after bursting through.
Just before the third quarter comes to a close, Richardson adds her second of the match, another similar sort of driving try to her first. This time she collects the ball well from Caitlin Clark who offloads in the tackle to Richardson, who can step out then through the hole, the opposition unable to stop her grabbing a brace.
As the game enters its final twenty minutes, Natasha Jones and Collie combine well in the opening minute, with Collie getting into great space and hitting her opposite number with a dominant hand off. She's dragged to ground and from the pop Tigers are unlucky to knock on.
The intent has continued here and Collie has another excellent break just moments later. Jones fires the ball wide with a big miss pass that Katie Childs does exceptionally well to pick up off her toes. The centre draws and passes, sending Collie flying into space. The fullback gets across well to cover and, from yet another offload, Childs is unlucky to knock on, unable to repeat her previous miracle catch.
A few minutes later and another big win at the scrum, which despite the consistent chopping and changing has looked dominant throughout, opens more space and the side again fall just short at the line, Childs tackled well just inches away from the whitewash.
There's a succession of turnovers from both sides before Henley are pinged for offside. Lucy Nye reacts quickest, sharply taking a quick tap and go, flinging it wide to Rebecca De Filippo who offloads swiftly and puts Katie Childs one on one with a winger. The centre has a lot to do but faces up her opponent, steps inside and finishes strongly.
It’s Childs who finishes the game with her second score of the day. Here it’s quick thinking from Amy Relf, the scrum half taking an astute tap penalty whilst the opposition are disorganised. Relf spots the space and offloads to Childs on the right who glides through the defence to finish the match.
Hudson was keen to stress that today was not about the final score line, it was about how we translated what the side had worked on in pre-season into a live match scenario.
In many ways, that goal has been achieved. Although there were naturally a couple of miscommunications, both in open play and at the set piece, when everything came together Tigers looked exceptionally strong, combining silky passing and movement with some brutally abrasive play, both in attack and defence.
Full time score: Henley Hawks 05 - 57 Leicester Tigers