Leicester Tigers Women’s team continued their unbeaten run in the Women’s Championship North with a gritty, 26-19 win over Cheltenham in Round 10.
The frosty conditions didn't reflect what was a game filled with fire and grit from both sides who left everything on the field. A star-studded Cheltenham line-up, containing three Premier 15s players and two internationals 7s players, really came to play and it made for a brutal clash between 1st and 2nd in the league.
The cold has subsided a touch and so, bar the light snow covering the in-goal areas, we kick off in fair conditions. Cheltenham attacked strongly from the off, a couple of hard lines getting over the gainline.
Cheltenham really piled on the pressure at the set piece, stealing a Leicester line-out and then a scrum within a couple of minutes and the home crowd responds with a roar of approval as they camped on Leicester's 5 metre line.
The big fight feel extended to the coaches with Macqueen extremely animated, orchestrating structure and brutality, as captain Natasha Jones leads her troops by example with a crunching tackle, driving the opposition back, dogged defence continuing until they won a scrum.
Now it was Tigers turn to look to play, as Molly Draycott's lovely offload releases Charlotte Daley who, if not for a seat belt tackle from Cheltenham, may well have gone the full 80m to score. As Leicester build phases and momentum, Daley found herself in lots of space on the left hand side and was Tigers' most dangerous threat in a tight first half.
She almost touched down in the corner but for desperate scramble defence from Cheltenham and a huge tackle from Ranni Samunda. Both sides took no prisoners in a bruising first half, Georgia Westwood, Charlotte Fray and Roisin McBrien on the warpath throughout.
The penalty count down allowed for the biggest threat of the half as Cheltenham advance back to the Tigers line but again they couldn't touch down. Both second rows Fray and Westwood, do superbly to hold the ball up and a lovely nudge long places the game back to the centre, wherein a injury allows some respite to the carnage.
It looked like the first half would end scoreless but Tigers' patience paid off as a grubber kick from lock Westwood allowed Molly Draycott to dart through and finish in the corner to rapturous cheers from the visiting bench, seeing Leicester lead by five at the break.
If the first half was like a battlefield, with both sides fighting for every blade of grass (or inch of snow), the second half was almost the opposite. Cheltenham flew out of the gates, with two huge tries in just five minutes.
First, a break from Canadian 7s player Monique Coffey, scrum-half Leia Brebner-Holden snipes well to get the home side on the board. A couple of minutes later, Coffey finds space again, dynamite running out wide on the right. This time instead of the 9 finding space, Cheltenham go all the way back left and full-back Emma Mundy touches down.
Just as soon as Cheltenham pull ahead, Tigers fire right back with a try by Charlotte Fray. The game has fully opened up now, scrum-half Lucy Nye spots the defence is too fixated on the threat of Charlotte Daley and nips through with a terrific show and go from a ruck. She's stopped an inch from the line but second row Fray picks and drives over the line. A well struck boot by Katie Childs and the scores are back level.
The game begins to settle down a touch in this breathless second half. Tigers line speed was key to halting home team momentum, not allowing Cheltenham over the gainline and forcing turnovers.
However, Coffey's lightning speed is continuing to cause all sorts of problems, eventually leading to Cheltenham Tigers taking the lead again. Lowri Davies touches down under the posts after a break through from full-back Emma Mundy, with the field broken after a succession of running rugby.
Despite the raucous home crowd, despite the bitter, biting weather and despite Cheltenham having all the momentum, Leicester simply pwould not be denied. Astute substitions saw scrum-half Morgan Richardson enter the fray and the scrum half would be the difference in a spectacular final 10 minutes.
The tempo was set with a blistering break from Harriet Roberts, shooting through a gap, stepping one, two, three Cheltenham players before being clattered by the full back. Ofure Ugiagbe was most alert to the break, clattering the 15 who had attempted to jackal and allowing Richardson to find space to touch down.
It didn't take long for the substite to strike again and abrasive carries through the centre allowed Tigers to build phases and giving the scrum half not only clean ball but also facing her with a disorganised defence. Richardson intelligently spots the gap, nips through with a pick and go from a ruck and for the first time since kick-off, Tigers retook the lead. A nervy kick with slotted with aplomb by Katie Childs.
As the clock inched down into the final minure, back to back dynamite hits from both Molly's really set the tone and made it clear this win would be going back to Leicester. First, Molly Sanghera takes down the powerful Ranni Samuda before Molly Draycott (now at full-back) made a crucial last ditch tackle to deny Cheltenham just before the line. Cheltenham pressure is relentless but Tigers dug in their heels and would not give them an inch of space.
Finally, a forced knock on granted a Tigers scrum and the ball was booted out to delight from the away bench as they completed the seven-point, 19-26 away win.