The opponent’s strength was clear before the match began, Head of Women’s Rugby Vicky Macqueen identifying the visitors as ‘the strongest side we have faced this season’, their ranks bolstered by Tigers’ own Lucy Nye, slotting in to start at scrum-half. However, despite the acknowledgement that they were the most physical team the Tigers have faced thus far, this match was one that saw utter rugby artistry, an extremely entertaining encounter brimming with cracking tries.
The game opens up in a bit of a nervous fashion, both sides trying to find their feet and establish dominance.
The initial quarter of the game is a frantic medley of play, with lots of physicality especially from the visitor’s from the Royal Air Force, who are marshalled well by a familiar captain, Lucy Nye. It’s often said ‘better the devil you know, than the one you don’t’, but that may be paradoxical when it means competing against a scrum-half with the qualities of Nye. Anyone who has seen her compete since her debut in the vital win away at Cheltenham Tigers Ladies, knows her qualities; a combative player with a high rugby IQ, incisive sniping and a stellar box kick.
The Leicester Tigers team knew that neutralising these qualities would be vital to success but in truth, after the first 15 minutes, they barely gave the opposition an ounce of breathing room to build the play.
It’s a score of pure grit to break the deadlock; a series of pick-and-go’s close to the line sees the team needing that final flourish and Georgia Westwood provides it, a move pulled straight from the training ground sees a dummy line run with Westwood there to barge over for the vital touchdown.
The lock’s score allowed Tigers that vital control and from this platform, they really took it their opponent’s. Holly Williams, slotting in at inside-centre today having featured predominantly from fly-half, shows new centre instincts by flying through on a sharp line and feeding Morgan Richardson out the back for the flanker to run it in from the 22.
In many ways, this moment would serve as a precursor to 60 minutes of serious full-court, edge-to-edge rugby. After a short break (this match is played in quarters, due to the exhibition nature of the contest and the extended squads selected), Richardson’s try is followed shortly after by Williams herself dotting down. This score was built up really well, with meticulous marginal gains, advancing slowly and Williams is there to finish.
The RAF come fighting back with some invention of their own, a steal inside their own 22 allowing for a sudden breakthrough. Tigers scramble well to defend and the RAF look to quickly reset. They opt for a chip over the top, delicately weighted by the fly-half but Lucrezia Iavarone is alive to the danger and sprints across to cover well, intelligently tucking in her body to narrowly keep her in play and allow for a turnover.
The Air Force are clearly still fighting for this one but just cannot string the plays together to truly threaten before half-time. Tigers, on the other hand, have a firework up their sleeve.
Tigers had scored 133 tries before today’s game but this has to rank up there with the very best. An encapsulation of wonderous rugby but also evidence to all of the young players watching on of the value of focus and hard work in training.
The scrum provides a great platform and the backs move is set: captain Natasha Jones receives at 10, sending the pass straight on to centre Williams, allowing her time to assess her options. Wing Bryany Chalk and fullback Harriet Roberts have set wide, whilst the onrushing Katie Childs is hitting a hard line, aimed between and trapping both opposition centres whilst Williams also straightens to fix her opposite number.
The RAF have kept their winger wide here to match up, expecting another typical display of width but Williams just pops it gently to her left and out of nowhere there’s Lucrezia Iavarone with a picture-perfect line to shoot through into open space. The flying wing still has so much to do, from a good 40 metres out and a scrambling opposition. At full-tilt the Italian hits a huge fend-off on the fullback to propel herself within a couple metres of the line, those consistent sessions in the gym bearing fruit as, even with a defender hanging off, there’s enough power in the legs to make it to the line.
Half-time score: Leicester Tigers 24 - RAF Rugby Union Women 0
There’s no rest for the wicked as Tigers have rung the changes but are starting exactly where they left off, brilliant industry in the forwards and beautiful artistry in the backs. Tigers turn the ball over and look to play quickly, getting it wide to Zoë Evans.
The RAF set a good shape, covering well and clearly expecting the winger to put on the afterburners but she arcs wide and pops into the hole for second-row Charlotte Fray to steam through. They build from this platform, winning the scrum and working it well, similar to Holly Williams’ try earlier, this time Hattie Roberts with a try any full-back would be proud of, perfect timing on the line to finish the sequence and put Tigers further ahead.
Just minutes later and there’s rampaging Roberts again, a second in as many minutes!
The team cover the whole field, typically working to the edge and Roberts catches a flat pass like a bullet, into a pure sprint down the wing. The winger looks to cover but gets a big hand off for her troubles as does the fullback, who tries her hand before befalling the same fate, courtesy of her opposite number.
Looking to get in on the frenetic action, Charlotte Fray cuts through a couple of challenges then steps into space; she’s stopped but there’s Ofure Ugiagbe on a great support line, with space to run, also covered well. Evans and Burgham combine well, with a pass wide and loop round opening space, falling foul to an unfortunate knock on as Tigers look to kill the game off.
As we enter the final quarter, the RAF rouse themselves, a sterling team talk demanding one final push. Jade Jones, straight off the bench, and Morgan Richardson respond in kind, with big shots to drive them back. The RAF opt to clear their lines and here Tigers look dangerous; however, a pass goes awry as the overload opens up and RAF’s right winger cannily steals in to nick it and has enough gas to go over to score.
A couple of mistakes from both sides later and there’s acres of open field. Charlotte Daley produces a great block from the box kick, not allowing the Air Force to exploit the space in behind. Tigers win a penalty and Tanya Bird takes and goes quickly, starting a chain of offloads which is unfortunate to be pulled back for an earlier knock-on. Tigers are undeterred and use the space well out left, a string of runners offering options but it falling into the gracious arms of Louisa Burgham who can jog over for her a try in three successive outings, what turns out to be the game’s final score.
There was almost try for a second wonder try of the game. A proactive Lucy Nye flies up to cut out a move before it can begin and the RAF try to exploit the chaos, grubbering through. However, a covering Morgan Richardson has read it superbly, taking it behind her own try line, stepping off into space and arcing her run to the right, away from danger. Suddenly, it’s Tigers ball and she punts forward, hunting a wonder score that is thwarted at the first hurdle as the air force gather and recycle on halfway.
There’s a tough back and forth in the final stages as both sides bring a physical contest to a close. A hard-fought contest serves as sharp contrast to the jovial atmosphere after the final whistle as both squads come together in the Hinckley clubhouse to sing, drink and be merry, just as the rugby gods intended.
Full-time: Leicester Tigers 41 - RAF Rugby Union Women 7