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Saracens win thriller that surely should have been on television

Leanne Infante scores Saracens Women's seventh try against
Leanne Infante was on the trysheet for Saracens in an entertaining encounter in the Women's Premiership - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

Saracens Women 39 - 26 Exeter Chiefs

What a shame this 11-try thriller wasn’t fit for television. This season is supposed to have catapulted Premiership Women’s Rugby into a new, forward-thinking era, but the league remains haunted somewhat by familiar teething problems.

The subdued crowd that occupied a pocket of Saracens’ cavernous ground suggested as much. At least they were treated to a fine, nip-and-tuck contest which saw the league leaders keep their unblemished season intact.

It seemed somewhat bizarre that this top-of-the-table tussle was overlooked for Bristol’s 50-12 triumph over bottom-of-the-table Leicester at Welford Road for TNT’s coverage. It is understood that PWR and the RFU are responsible for selecting the fixtures with minimal input from the broadcaster.

Organisers, of course, can hardly predict lop-sided score lines - which incidentally have been a feature of this league in recent seasons - but at a time when the women’s game is searching for more eyeballs, fans had to search a corner of the internet to watch this arm wrestle.

Georgia Evans, the Saracens second row, described the decision as “surprising” but, amid a notable drop-off in the number of PWR clubs opting to livestream their matches this season, Alex Austerberry, the Saracens head coach, was more frank in his assessment, hinting it was a missed opportunity.

“My only disappointment is that we’ve dropped down from the coverage we had last year,” said Austerberry. “In a perfect world, we would have four games across the weekend and it’s not quite there yet. But again, Leicester are a new team, they need their exposure as well. It’s a difficult balance to have. We had an opportunity to really showcase that game, alongside other games. Did we maximise it?”

Credit must go to Saracens, who offered a livestream of the fixture. You wonder whether John Mitchell, the new Red Roses coach who will announce his Women’s Six Nations squad at the end of February, tuned in to watch. He would have certainly been pleased with Poppy Cleall’s performance, whose season is becoming quite the showreel of imperious performances worthy of a return to England’s back-row.

Cliodhna Moloney of Exeter Chiefs is tackled by Poppy Cleall of Saracens
Poppy Cleall tackles Cliodhna Moloney in a commanding back-row performance - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

Saracens’ big ball-carrying No.8 has looked stronger than ever since returning to competitive action after a lower-leg injury which ruled her out of last year’s WXV competition in New Zealand, where the Red Roses were victorious.

The 31-year-old, who has been a focal point of Saracens’ scintillating season, left her fingerprints all over her side’s victory. She was pivotal in holding Exeter up over the line in the opening minutes, before running a phenomenal support line when Jess Breach gathered her own chip to feed Ella Wyrwas, who ran in for the hosts’ opener. Her on-field telepathy with Marlie Packer, who put the game to bed after rumbling over from a crusading maul in the 69th minute, was also obvious.

“Poppy’s a hugely influential player on the pitch,” said Austerberry. “She’s great for our group. She stands up in big games in key moments, she’s wonderfully gifted in terms of understanding the game. She’s a quality player. She’s certainly getting back to the form she’s capable of.”

Saracens, who at times lacked their usual calmness in an occasionally frantic contest, recovered from a wobble immediately after the break when Exeter winger Katie Buchanan scythed through to set up Claudia Macdonald, who edged the visitors back in front.

The hosts responded through Jess Breach - who beat fellow England winger Macdonald in an enthralling footrace - before Packer’s score put daylight between the two sides.

Chiefs, while lacking their usual spark, finished strongly when Kobayo Kobayashi glided over to secure a valuable losing bonus-point for Susie Appleby’s outfit.

It is now seven from seven from Austerberry’s side, who are in imperious form as the hunters rather than the hunted, although the real litmus test will come against reigning champions Gloucester-Hartpury at Kingsholm next week.

Match details

Scores: 5-0 Wyrwas try, 7-0 De Goede con, 12-0 Campbell try, 12-5 Rogers try, 12-7 Cantorna con, 12-12 Moloney try, 12-14 Cantorna con, 17-14 De Goede try, 17-19 Macdonald try, 17-21 Cantorna con, 22-21 Farries try, 27-21 Breach try, 32-21 Packer try, 37-21 Infante try, 39-26 De Goede con, 39-26 Kobayashi try

Saracens: J Breach; P Farries, S Gregson, L Clappe (C Grant 73); A McDougall (B Blacklock 70), E Wyrwas (L Infante 67); M Hunt (A Gondwe 72), M Campbell (B Field 72), D Rose (K Clifford 57), G Evans (E Taylor 63), R Galligan, S de Goede, M Packer, P Cleall (G Moore 72)

Exeter Chiefs: M Doidge, C Macdonald, K Kobayashi, G Cantorna, K Buchanan (E Tuttosi 69); A Tessier, B Bradley (O Ortiz 78); H Rogers (A Middlebrooke 69), C Moloney, D Menin (L Hanlon 69), N Fryday (H Millar-Mills 60), P Leitch, M Feaunati (E Jefferies 60), E McMahon (M Allen 60), R Johnson

Booked: Moloney.

Replacements not used: D Preece

Referee: Richard Gordon

Attendance: 909

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