With the opening round of the new look Premiership Women’s Rugby in the rear-view mirror, we turn our attention to this weekend’s fixtures and a high profile derby match. Exeter Chiefs host Bristol Bears for an exciting South West derby, with Sandy Park set to host two of this season’s top contenders for the league title on Sunday.
Bristol Bears have been busy during the transfer window ahead of the 2023/24 PWR season, bolstering their squad with numerous England and Scotland internationals. The Bears now boast England fly half Holly Aitchison, as well as a full Red Roses front row with Hannah Botterman joining Lark Atkin-Davies and Sarah Bern.
The upgraded Bears squad has garnered the attention of their local rivals, as Exeter Chiefs Women’s Head Coach Susie Appleby discussed Bristol’s recruitment ahead of the derby fixture. Speaking in the pre-match media conference, Appleby is impressed by the Bears squad, but insists that her players are up to the challenge.
“Their recruitment was where it really started. So you bring in Holly Aitchison and you bring in a world class game manager. And now they’ve got a complete England front row and front five with Abby (Ward) coming back in. And fair play to her, coming back after only having a baby not very long ago, and she’s come back really well.
“So listen, there’s always a ferocious encounter up front between ourselves and Bristol. They’re a really good side, they attack really well. We always say, (they are the) best alongside us in the league, because they are, they can attack you from anywhere. They’ve complemented that, with probably a really good kicking game coming from Holly (Aitchison). Just a really good side and I think they’ve been that ‘just about did it’, in the last few seasons hitting semi-finals. But now I think you know, they’ve got a good squad there.
“That said, so have we, so we’re expecting a decent game, but it is the second game of the campaign for both sides. So we’re going to go and have a good look at them now in our preview, and then hopefully implement some more stuff.”
Despite the Red Roses stars that populate the Bristol squad, England’s latest break-out talent is Exeter Chiefs’ Maisy Allen. The back-rower has been steadily progressing within the new look Red Roses set-up under the coaching staff of Louis Deacon, Sarah Hunter and John Mitchell. Allen got her international call-up in the two Summer friendlies against Canada, and earned herself a spot on the plane to New Zealand, as England won the first ever WXV1 tournament.
Allen missed out on the opening weekend win over Leicester, yet was on hand to discuss her side’s performance in the 44-27 win over Leicester’s Tigers Women. Despite being just 21-years-old, Allen has an astute reading of the game beyond her years, and explained how the Chiefs will look to rectify the mistakes against a stronger Bristolian outfit.
“Obviously, I wasn’t in the squad last weekend. But I’ve watched the game back and been in all the reviews and things like that. So, I have seen the game, I think it was a little bit disjointed in places, but the likes of Demi (Swann), a really strong scrummager, she’s settled into our shape quite well, considering she’s not been here for very long.
“So in terms of that matchup in the front row, I think it’s going to be really exciting. And I can’t speak too much on scrummaging, but that’s a lot on technique. It’s just about trying to counterbalance what they (Bristol Bears) bring, to what we can bring. But, our players are really strong, and I think the new people that have come in, the likes of Demi (Swann), and Maddie (Fe’aunati) as well, in the back-row, offer something really exciting.”
Allen also watched on at Sandy Park, as the Exeter Chiefs men’s side secured a dramatic win over their regional rivals last weekend. Henry Slade’s last minute penalty snatched victory from Gloucester for a 25-24 Chiefs win, with Allen gaining an extra buzz of motivation having witnessed the ‘scenes’ of a derby day victory in Devon.
“I watched the men’s game, that was a great finish to the game. It’s one of those things, that a close game, everyone enjoys watching it. I think no matter who it is, there’s always a drive for girls, because they all want to win.”
“You know, it’s going to be a big battle but in terms of week in week out, everyone’s always up for a game. And having it against Bristol who are up the road is always exciting, especially as we’ve had a few very close semis. Semis that we’ve come out on top of over the past couple of years.”
Appleby is excited to get her newest Red Rose out of the stands and back on the pitch, and was full of praise for the back-rower. The Chiefs Head Coach believes the added international experience will work wonders for Allen, now she has returned to Sandy Park from her time spent in the England camp.
“Well, we’ll see on Sunday, she hasn’t played yet. She’s trained, but (it’s the) same old Maisy, Maisy is unreal. She’s a fantastic player who got the recognition she deserved, and therefore she got capped.
Fantastic experience for her to be out with England and be in that international camp, that would have done her a world of good.
“She now brings back that little bit of experience into our squad. Maisy leads from the front, she always has done even as a young player, so we’re just probably expecting more of that. There’s no pressure on ‘Mais’ because she does anyway, she just performs. She is everything that we want a Chief to be, she’s everything we’ve been wanting. You know, a young player to get an England cap, and that came after three years with Chiefs. So, excited for Maisie to see where she can take her game.”
One of the newest arrivals at Sandy Park, prop Demi Swann is set to pack down the scrum against Bristol’s England internationals on Sunday. Swann arrived in Exeter following the league withdrawal of Worcester Warriors Women last month, and the Scot made her Chiefs debut in the season’s opener against Leicester Tigers Women. Appleby has been impressed by the Scottish international, and backs her front rower to take the fight to Bristol’s Red Roses.
“Demi’s a great player, we knew that there was a lot of potential there, and we saw it on (last) Sunday. That’s why she’s going again. So you know, there’s a young player that hasn’t had a lot of opportunity. There’s a very powerful player there as well. How she’ll fare against, who is it (Sarah) Bern on that side, who knows? She’s prepping as well as you can do, and again, there’s lots of different elements when you look at the scrummaging.
“There’s a referee in the middle of it. There’s five other players alongside Demi, so how they function alongside each other is very, very important. So listen, back to the same thing, and I’ll probably sound like a stuck record, we prepare the best we can to face what we know about the opposition. And when it gets to the day, it’s over to the player.”
Appleby continued on to discuss how at this early stage of the season, the Chiefs are more focussed on their own performance than anything else. Exeter have the opportunity to go top of the PWR this Sunday, yet the Head Coach disregards looking at the standings until at least the Christmas break.
“It’s about the performance at this early stage in the season. It’s more about us than the opposition as well, as you build, as you try to gain momentum and build momentum, as you get through games. Of course, you start to look at the table at Christmas. When you’ve played six games, you’re definitely looking at where you’re sitting, and how many points you’ve amassed and where everyone else is doing around you.
“But in these early exchanges, I would say it’s very much focusing on getting the points when they’re on offer. That’s going to be critical because there’s going to be key moments, and if you don’t take them against those big oppositions like Bristol, Gloucester, Saracens etc. You’re not going to get more chances than that. So, that’s where we have to be as ruthless as we can be, as accurate as we can be. That’s the big focus for us at the moment.”