Gloucester-Hartpury crowned champions again after super second-half comeback

Gloucester-Hartpury staged a sensational second-half comeback to retain their Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby title with a 36-24 victory over Bristol Bears at Sandy Park.

Sean Lynn’s side trailed 17-7 after an out-of-sorts first half but rallied to score four tries in 14 relentless second-half minutes to see off Bears in their first final.

Victory ensures Gloucester-Hartpury backed up their first-place finish in the regular season with silverware and sees them become just the second side to go back-to-back.

They had survive an almighty scare, though, with tries from Courtney Keight, Lark Atkin-Davies and Hannah Botterman putting Bears in the ascendancy, with Gloucester’s sole first-half score coming from Natasha Hunt.

But the proverbial game of two halves ensued and tries from Pip Hendy, Emma Sing, Mia Venner and Hannah Jones left Gloucester on the brink of glory.

Bears’ Ella Lovibond hit back to set up a dramatic finale but a penalty at the death from Sing saw Gloucester over the line and completed a momentous turnaround.

Bears had earlier dominated the early knockings, paying no attention to their underdogs tag, going closest through semi-final match-winner Reneeqa Bonner.

There were moments of promise for the holders, principally a neat kick and chase from Venner and a couple of half breaks from Hunt but a succession of penalties on the floor stopped them from building any meaningful momentum.

Bears then made a deserved breakthrough when Keight dotted down on her 50th club appearance after 17 minutes.

The passage was the highest-phased tally of the season, underling Bears’ bravery on the biggest stage, and culminated with a simple finish in the corner for the winger.

A tough opening quarter for Gloucester-Hartpury was compounded by the loss of second row Sam Monaghan who was stretchered off and replaced by Kate Williams.

But they produced their best period of the half to take the lead and a rare spell of dominance ended with a fine score from co-captain Hunt.

Sarah Beckett’s deft hands sent Bethan Lewis in behind the Bears defence and Hunt provided support in trademark fashion, hovering on the shoulder to dot down under the sticks leaving Sing with a straightforward conversion.

Hunt then conceded the penalty which enabled Bears to regain control, holding back fellow No.9 Keira Bevan at a scrum and Holly Aitchison punished the concession to maximum effect, booting to within five metres of the line.

Bears were thwarted at the line out at the first attempt but illegally so in the eyes of Sara Cox and from their second go hooker Atkin-Davies touched down for her 14th try of the season, taking her clear of Abby Dow in the overall standings.

Bears kept pushing before the break and crossed for a third time through Botterman and Amber Reed found her kicking boots to extend the lead to 17-7 at the interval.

Gloucester-Hartpury emerged a side transformed after half time and Bears struggled to find an answer.

It could have been even better for Lynn’s side but flanker Lewis’ score was disallowed even after Sing had kicked for the posts.

After a long consultation with the TMO, Meryl Smith was found to have just sandwiched her hand between ball and line, but Gloucester-Hartpury were denied only momentarily.

Bears’ stubborn defence was finally breached after a try in the corner from Hendy and Gloucester-Hartpury kept on finding numbers out wide from there, with full-back Sing and wing Venner touching down in similar fashion.

Bears were out on their feet by this point and unable to stem the tide with Gloucester-Hartpury scoring a fifth try on 67 minutes through centre Jones.

The drama wasn’t done there though and Bears set up a grandstand finish when replacement Lovibond scored with her first touch. 

But Sing settled any lingering nerves with a long-distance penalty a minute from time, sparking jubilant celebrations as Gloucester-Hartpury cemented their status as the league's best side.