“We Have to be on our Game” - Exeter Chiefs Women Prepared For Monumental Top Four Clash with Saracens - Ruck

“We Have to be on our Game” – Exeter Chiefs Women Prepared For Monumental Top Four Clash with Saracens

By Jack Sanderson

Exeter Chiefs prepare to host London outfit Saracens on Sunday for a much anticipated clash in the Women’s Premiership. The Chiefs are sat in third, and come into this game after a dominant 10-40 win over Ealing Trailfinders.

This cemented their spot in the top four to confirm a playoff place in June, and they will be looking to leapfrog their opponents in the table with a win that would send them into second place. This would put Exeter in a great position to secure a home tie in the playoffs, with only one game left of the regular season after this weekend. 

Claudia MacDonald of Exeter Chiefs Women on the break goes over for a try during the Allianz PWR match between Exeter Chiefs Women and Harlequins Women at Sandy Park on 24 Feb 2024. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK.

The Chiefs’ had only played five games since the start of February, before their most recent game against the Trailfinders. Exeter’s most recent game before that was all the way back on the 9th of March, in a resounding 43-7 victory over mid-table side Loughborough Lightning. With quite a gap between games recently Chiefs coach Susie Appleby was delighted with her side getting back to action last weekend against Ealing.

“It was fun, it was a lovely hot day, absolutely scorching I think for the players on the pitch, but it was really good to get back into the league. I mean Ealing are a good side, they were missing a few, we were still missing a few, but the second half in particular we put some nice stuff together, which will hopefully bring us a little bit of momentum into this game”. 

Since 2021, this weekend’s fixture has gone the way of the home side 100% of the time. The two sides have met nine times since the 30th of January 2021, with Exeter winning four out of four at home, and Saracens winning five out of five at their ground. Based on that stat alone the Chiefs will be very confident of coming away with a result going into Sunday’s game at Sandy Park. Susie Appleby had her say on what it means to play at Sandy Park, but is keen to be wary of her side’s competition this weekend.

Susie Appleby, Head Coach of Exeter Chiefs Women during the Exeter Chiefs Women training session at Sandy Park on 1 June 2022. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK.

“I think it’s just Sandy Park in general, the girls love the crowd, the crowd love the girls, and we’re getting more and more people in here so the noise on any matchday is brilliant. There’s personal relationships in there, there’s friendships and it’s just really special. It’s special for the boys, it’s special for the girls just being at Sandy Park. 

“We’re expecting lots of physicality (from Saracens), a really decent international back row, pace across the back line, good kicking game in Zoe Harrison, and the back-up young 10 who’s done really well this season. They don’t change how they play, they just do it really well so we have to be on our game to be able to compete with that.

“We’ve got to be on our game defensively to ensure we get enough ball in the right areas of the field and that’s the key thing, because any team at the top of this league, if you give them territory they’ve got really good driven line-outs, ourselves included so listen, there’s discipline in our own half, there’s playing in the right areas of the field and then really seizing opportunities and making sure we convert them.”

Rachel Johnson of Exeter Chiefs Women is hugged by team mates after the Allianz PWR match between Exeter Chiefs Women and Harlequins Women at Sandy Park on 24 Feb 2024. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK.

The Chiefs are still mathematically able to clinch a top two spot, which would see them claim a home fixture in the first round of the playoffs, but a lot would have to go their way for that to happen. If Exeter were to beat Saracens on Sunday with a bonus point win, they would sit two points clear with three games to go.

However, Saracens would still have a game in hand on the Chiefs. The Chiefs face Leicester Tigers on the final day of the season and would need to win, and also rely on Saracens losing to either Gloucester-Hartpury or Loughborough Lightning to clinch the second spot. However, Susie Appleby is not looking to focus on that too much, as her side heads into their final two games of the season.

“I know it’s a bit of a cliche but we’re looking at performance, we’ve got to bring things back together in the most cohesive way that we can, our North Americans are still on the opposite side of the world. They’ll be back for one game against Leicester before we hit the playoffs so it’s who comes back and in what kind of form.

Final whistle celebrations for Ebony Jefferies of Exeter Chiefs Women, Charlie Jacoby of Exeter Chiefs Women with Poppy Leith, Captain of Exeter Chiefs Women as a dejected looking Marlie Packer, co-captain of Saracens Women looks on after the Allianz Premier 15s semi-final match between Exeter Chiefs Women and Saracens Women at Sandy Park on 11 June 2023. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK.

“What we’re trying to do is bring continuity into each bit of performance, and as I said the second half against Ealing was pleasing. I don’t want to wait until the second half on Sunday for that to happen, we need to go in there from minute one to minute 80 to give ourselves a chance against one of the two best sides in the competition at the moment.”

One player who has impressed over the season for the Chiefs has been lock Poppy Leitch. The experienced forward joined Exeter from Bristol Bears in 2020 and has hit the ground running, being named co-captain at the start of 2021/22 season alongside Kate Zackary, as well as being shortlisted for the Premier15s team of the season for the 2022/23 season. With the playoffs on the horizon, Leitch had her say on how the Chiefs will take their momentum into those games at the end of the season.

Poppy Leitch, Captain of Exeter Chiefs Women during the Allianz PWR match between Exeter Chiefs Women and Harlequins Women at Sandy Park on 24 Feb 2024. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK.

“People often refer to this time of year as the business end of the season, and we’ve been in finals before and ultimately it’s the team that turns up on the day that usually ends up lifting the trophy. We saw that in the Premiership Cup in the past two years for us, and obviously just missed out on the last two finals against Saracens and Gloucester.

“So to be hitting form when it really starts to matter, with it being really close between third and fourth spot, is really pleasing so hopefully we take that form into the game this weekend. It’s a pretty similar team to usual, Maddie (Feaunati) is coming in to start at 8 which is exciting for her, so yeah it’s good to be hitting form but we need to try and translate that into this weekend.”

Alongside her playing career, Poppy Leitch took on the job as Exeter University Women’s Rugby head coach in 2020. Leitch was a student at Exeter University for four years, and took on the job whilst she was still at Bristol Bears. Her side finished fifth in the table this season, and the Exeter forward was named on a shortlist for coach of the season for her efforts with the side. Leitch explained her role and how much she enjoyed her time at the university as a student. 

Poppy Leitch, Captain of Exeter Chiefs Women is tackled by Alex Matthews of Gloucester-Hartpury during the Allianz Premier 15s Final Match between Gloucester-Hartpury and Exeter Chiefs Women at Queensholm on 24 June. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“I was a student there for four years, I did my undergraduate and my PGCE there which was a really good time in my life. I played at Bristol Bears at the time because Exeter Chiefs Women didn’t actually exist then. When our coach Jo Yapp left, who actually coaches the Wallaroos (Australian Women’s National Team) now, they asked if I would interview for taking over the programme.

“I was 21, I really didn’t know what I was doing, I was probably really bad in my first year of the job. I’m still learning now obviously, but I’m now five years down the line, we’ve got three teams, over 100 members. It’s a lot doing both, I feel very fortunate to be doing both, but it definitely takes a bit of balancing.

“Lots of the players are playing here and also playing for me for the university sides. We had 16 who were involved last week at Ealing, whether they were traveling reserves, on the bench or starting and those numbers are increasing each week which is amazing. It’s a great programme that had foundations laid by Jo Yapp years ago which have just continued to grow and I think Chiefs Women coming into the Premiership has just skyrocketed our recruitment.”

Exeter’s big clash against Saracens kicks off at 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon at Sandy Park, with the winner taking second spot in the table for now. Both sides have secured a playoff place and will be looking to try and clinch the other home tie for the playoffs from each other as we are well and truly deep into the business end of the season.