Despite a second-half red card for Exeter, Bristol Bears succumbed to a narrow defeat

Credit: WILL COOPER/JMP

Bristol Bears 27 Exeter Chiefs 31

So gripping was this West Country derby that it was easy to forget the precarious boundaries within which England’s elite women’s rugby competition – where no players are being tested for coronavirus – continues to operate.  

As the pandemic grips the nation, serious questions are being asked over whether it is safe for players in the Premier 15s to continue simply with adapted law variations that have been ushered in by the Rugby Football Union to reduce face-to-face contact. The players’ verdict? Yes, it is safe enough, and the show must go on.

“I’m more likely to catch Covid from my work than through rugby,” insisted Pam, Bristol’s loosehead prop and acute medical ward doctor in one of the city’s hospitals who received her Covid-19 vaccination last Friday.

“As players, we take pride in following the rules, even if that means things like having different water bottles. Personally, I have always felt safe in training and on the pitch in games, even without testing. There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment, but hopefully the league will continue because I get so much joy from rugby – it’s my happy place.” 

The Premier 15s was not immune to fixture cancellations this weekend, with Harlequins and Saracens having their games with Wasps and Sale called off respectively in the wake of London declaring a major incident.

Fortunately – or unfortunately, whatever way you look at it – this match was spared, and it turned out to be one of the tightest mid-table tussles.

Susie Appleby’s Exeter side have shown they are a force to be reckoned with in their debut season in the women’s premiership and, despite often starting matches on the front foot, have struggled to close out wins.

They looked to be heading for a similar fate when their talismanic scrumhalf, Patrica Garcia, was sent off in the 43rd minute after upending Jaz Joyce in a dangerous tackle. But against the odds, the visitors dug deep and crafted two late tries through Emily Tuttosi and Garnet Mackinder which blew the wind out of Bristol’s sails. 

“Those players had to find some will from within – and that was the most pleasing thing for me – they did,” said Appleby.

“They fought for each other. We made some poor decisions when we went down to 14, but we managed to find our way out of trouble. That shows massive heart and resilience, and that’s what being a Chief is all about.”

History dictated that this would be a close encounter – just two points separated these teams when Bristol edged it at Sandy Park last October – and both sides ping ponged in possession in a game which was lit up by fifteen-cum-sevens player, Jaz Joyce. 

The Welsh winger cancelled out Linde Van der Velden’s early score with a scorching one of her own as she turned on the gas down her left flank to carve Exeter’s defence open.

Her second was even more impressive – reading a perfectly-timed interception metres from the Bears’ own tryline before blitzing the entire length of the field to become the Premier 15s leading try scorer, with 11.

Exeter’s defence simply backed off the pacy winger whenever she was on the ball, except for Garcia, who left referee Nikki O’Donnell with no choice but to send her from the field. Appleby had no complaints. 

“It’s a clear-cut red,” she said. “It was unfortunate, there was no malice in there, but equally, there was no ability for the referee to go over any video analysis to see what happened, and whether she [Joyce] jumped into it. It’s sad for Pat, she’s the kindest player, and she’s gutted. But it’s been dealt with properly and that’s what you expect at this level.”

Emerging from the incident unscathed, it was barely minutes before Joyce turned up the heat again, snake-hipping her way into Exeter’s territory for her hat-trick, which will help stake her claim for a spot in Great Britain’s women’s sevens squad at this year’s postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“She’s only going to get better,” warned Tom Lindsay, Bristol’s assistant coach. “I’d love to watch Jaz in Tokyo.

“She’s one of those rugby generational players who come along very rarely, like [former England player] Jason Robsinson. I haven’t seen anyone in the women’s game – especially in Great Britain – like Jaz.” 

But for all her sublime individual brilliance, Joyce could not swing the momentum in Bristol’s favour. Exeter jolted into survival mode after Garcia’s exit to earn their fourth victory of the season and leapfrog Gloucester-Hartpury to fifth in the table, although standings seem to have become somewhat trivial of late. 

“Yes, we’re in a global pandemic, the girls know they’re very fortunate to still be playing rugby,” added Lindsay, who was visibly pleased with his side’s losing bonus point. “From our point of view, we’re doing everything as a club to keep the girls safe. If we keep being diligent, I think we’ll be fine.” 

Match details

Scores: 0-5 Van der Velden try, 0-7 Cantorna con, 5-7 Joyce try, 7-7 Snowsill con, 12-7 Joyce try, 14-7 Snowsill con, 14-12 Jefferies try, 14-14 Cantorna con, 17-14 Snowsill pen, 17-19 Delgado try, 22-19 Joyce try, 24-19 Snowsill con, 24-24 Tuttosi try, 24-26 Cantorna con, 27-26 Snowsill pen, 27-31 Mackinder try. 

Bristol: K Powell, L S-Goddard, P Murray, L Skuse, J Joyce, E Snowsill, L Burgess (Settembri 52) S Pam (Wynne 61) C Nielson, S Bern (Evans 25) H Cunningham, N John (Boyd 35) A Butchers, M Johnes, S Lillicrap (Barwick 63)

Replacements: Lockwood, Wynne, Evans, Boyd, Barwick, Settembri, Jones, Coles. 

Exeter: M Doidge, L Holland, L Cattell (Robinson 47) G Cantorna, G Makinder, T Black, P Garcia, S Kato, E Tuttosi, L Delgado (de Merchant 47) P Leitch, M Hunt, E Jefferies, K Zachary, L Van der Velden. 

Replacements: D French, M Roberts, O de Merchant, R Johnson, A Flebbing, F Robinson, L Sheehan, N Terry. 

Referee: Nikki O’Donnell