After a season brimming with highlights, Leicester Tigers fell to defending champions Cheltenham Tigers who ended the previously undefeated streak of the East-Midlands side with a hard-fought 17 - 27 win at Twickenham Stadium.
It's only fitting that the captain should lead their side into battle and so Natasha Jones kicks deep into Cheltenham territory to begin the fixture.
Right from the off Lucy Nye is bringing a real dynamism to scrum-half, orchestrating play and putting Cheltenham straight on the back foot. There's a succession of strong carries, from Louisa Burgham, to Becky Noon, to Harriet Roberts before Ofure Ugiagbe rides one tackle to power over the gain line. Suddenly, there's a gap and Charlotte Fray is sent storming through to earn 10 metres, for the first big roar from the crowd. There's an unfortunate knock on, the hands too swift in the end. But the scrum, like the semi-final, is absolutely exceptional and against the head they walk Cheltenham back and win the ball.
The early exchanges were all Leicester, the side completely controlling possession but unable to convert this dominance into points. After being rattled by an early East-Midlands storm, Cheltenham regather themselves, clearing the ball upfield and, at the first opportunity at an open field, fire right back. After some scrappy play in the centre of the field, Lucy Nye box kicks just outside her own 22 to relieve pressure. However, the ball falls right to Cheltenham wing Emma Hennessey, who steps one and looks dangerous before Noon does terrifically to track back and cover. They keep playing the phases as Leicester Tigers do their best to realign, their defensive set including another great piece of scramble defending from Roberts on opposite wing Hannah Meek. However it's Cheltenham Tigers captain Maddie Massey who makes the difference and is able to break the deadlock, finding space and finishing from close range to open the scoring.
Leicester look to come firing back, with hard carries from Jones, Fray, Jade Jones and Roberts but Cheltenham have refocused impressively and have begun doubling up in tackles and are driving Tigers back each time. They're also making great use of the jackal, a weapon used so effectively by Leicester in the aforementioned semi-final and they steal the ball twice in quick succession to not allow any sort of foothold for those in green, red and white. After a knock-on on their own 22 from Leicester, it starts to look like the game may be slipping through their fingers.
But, even after losing Fray to injury, the scrum pulls through just as its never been more important. Another dominant shove and the ball is won back once again and the penalty with it, which is duly kicked to halfway and allows the side to breathe a sigh of relief. The Ro and Mo back-row connection (flankers Roisin McBrien and Morgan Richardson) both break the gain line, with a lovely offload thrown in, with more forwards steaming in to keep Cheltenham off balance. Nye keeps the tempo high and, following powerful carries, she spots the chance to go wide and does so, centres Jones and Katie Childs involved as Roberts is able to find space and dot down.
Parity is not to last. Cheltenham come firing right back and, in the blink of an eye, No. 8 Tahlia Brody has stormed through and shell-shocked Twickenham with a dynamite line from nearly 30 metres out.
Leicester attempt to roar back themselves and it's only an unfortunate forward pass by Draycott to Burgham that denies an equalising score. Cheltenham attempt to run it back from their own line and make impressive metres with offloads aplenty, only brilliant scrambling back from Draycott, Childs and then Roberts, to end the move. It's Roberts who finds a break herself from a canny pick and go and, with just a couple of minutes to go, grants her side a lifeline. The wing is stopped about 15 metres out and, with a defensive line firmly set, Tigers know there's only one way to the try line and its straight through their opposition. First, Richardson shoots in with an impact that sends an 'oooo' through the stadium before Fray (now back on) does the same. Nye suddenly spots a gap and an injection of pace later, shoots through, the scrum-half stopped agonisingly close. Jade Jones, however, refuses to let this opportunity pass. She sets herself and her support and bulldozes in; despite being met by three opposition players she stretches out and dunks the ball down one-handed, an exceptional finish to a hard-fought first half.
Half-time: Leicester Tigers 10 – 12 Cheltenham Tigers
In conversation with Steve Hanna prior to this match he, firstly, stressed the incredible difficulty the coaching team had with selecting a 22 for this game and, in stands to reason, a starting 15. What this meant was that, by utilising the bench, they can look to adjust the tactical plan through substitutions. With Tanya Bird and Charlotte Daley brought onto the field, Leicester now shifted to their width to make full use of the larger Twickenham field, fly-half Ellie Turner and Jones both actively sweeping the ball wide at any opportunity. However, just as in the first half, tough tackles and mishandling means the East-Midlands outfit are struggling to gather a head of steam. Right on cue, the ultimate gut punch comes as wing Emma Hennessy receives in space and has the gas to run it home, finishing under the posts.
Down by seven points, the game seems as if it’s desperately crying out for someone to step up and make some magic happen. Charlotte Daley has been unlucky but she's visibly growing into the game, leaping brilliantly to tap the ball back and keep it in play, then picking a pass up off her toes just a minute later. But it's a different pair of substitutes who makes the difference, brought on around 10 minutes into the second half, Amy Relf and Rebecca Church. Brought on at fly-half, it's Relf's delicious grubber kick through that causes chaos and, as Cheltenham scramble to try and defend it, she follows it up with another and Leicester capitalise. Phenomenal patience is shown by chasers Daley and Fray who secure the ball rather than attempt a risky pick & drive and, with acres of space out wide, the side play through five sets of hands before the ball ends up in the waiting grasp of Churchy who can touch down powerfully.
It was truly anyone’s game now after Fray nails the conversion to make it 17 apiece. The match becomes a blur of activity, with both sides giving everything for that win. The carries are coming thick and fast and proceedings begin to break down, neither side able to keep possession for a sustained period of time.
In the end, buoyed by their 2nd XV winning the Intermediate cup just minutes before stepping onto the field, Cheltenham Tigers secured the win and retained their title with a quickfire double in the game’s dying minutes, partnering a well-taken penalty with a rampaging carry from deep from Brody, a mirror of her first-half score. With just two minutes left on the clock, Leicester fought valiantly but were unable to turn it around. It's tough to take after such an incredible season together but that's sport, both its beauty and its heartbreak.
Full-time: Leicester Tigers 17 – 27 Cheltenham Tigers
Congratulations to Cheltenham Tigers who have retained their Championship playoff title with a late penalty and then a try in the last five minutes. Final score Cheltenham Tigers 27-17 Leicester Tigers.
A late try from Jade Jones reduces the deficit to just two points as Cheltenham Tigers lead by 12-10.
Captain Natasha Jones gets us underway in today's Championship playoff final at Twickenham.