Loughborough Lightning were unable to mark their first home game of the Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby season with a victory as Bristol Bears emerged victorious from cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.
Wearing their Black, Green and Gold change strip for the first time, Nathan Smith’s side were made to pay for a slow start that hampered hopes of backing up the previous weekend’s memorable victory at Leicester Tigers.
Deborah Wills and Sarah Bern struck at the start and end of the first half sandwiching Meg Varley’s brace and Carmela Morrall’s response for Loughborough.
Tries from Kiera Bevan, Alisha Butchers, Gabriella Nigrelli and Lark Atkin-Davies ensured Bristol’s win in the second half with Loughborough falling just short of a bonus point with Kathryn Treder and Carys Williams-Morris crossing the whitewash.
11’ | ⚡️TRY for Lightning⚡️ by Carmela Morrall— Loughborough Lightning Rugby ⚡️ (@LightningRugby) December 9, 2023
After a series of hard carriers from the forwards the ball is shipped wide and dotted down by Carmela. Conversion successful 💜
LOU 7 - 10 BRI#LightningStrikes #LOUvBRI #AllianzPrem #PWR pic.twitter.com/4Ha0hiYbWb
Not even two minutes had been played when Bristol set the tone with a powerful opening score. Hannah Botterman and Rownita Marston-Mulhearn made inroads before the ball was worked wide with Jenny Hesketh feeding Wills to go over in the left corner.
Five mintues later, it was fellow winger Varley who breezed over after strong link-up play from Holly Aitchison and Amber Reed.
Loughborough lost fly-half Helen Nelson to illness the morning of the match but it was her late replacement in the number ten shirt, Helena Rowland, who helped get them back in the game with a booming penalty kick to touch.
After a series of phases and two separate penalty advantages played by referee Craig Maxwell-Keys, Rowland neatly popped out of contact for the onrushing Morrall to bundle over from a few metres out. Rowland confidently converted to the cut deficit to three points.
Bristol re-established their ten-point advantage 15 minutes before half-time after strong interplay between the forwards and backs resulted in Varley powering her way over for her second try of the half that was improved by Aitchison from the right touchline.
The response was almost instant as a handling error in the backfield from the kick-off gave Loughborough a lineout deep in the attacking 22. Unfortunately on this occasion, Lightning failed to strike as a small knock-on was spotted by one of the referee’s assistants.
Lightning got themselves over the line shortly afterwards as Bulou Mataitoga produced a sparkling 20-metre diagonal run that Sadia Kabeya advanced even further, only for the close-range recycle to be held up for a goalline dropout.
After surviving those scares, Bristol landed a sucker punch a minute before the break as England international prop Bern finished a sweeping move that started from a Loughborough knock-on near the halfway line.
Daisy Hibbert-Jones, introduced during the break, immediately made an impact winning a breakdown penalty on the 22 as Bristol were twice penalised, but escaped with no damage inflicted as a penalty kick to touch fell short and a lineout was overthrown.
Bristol once more showed their ruthless streak as Phoebe Murray won the footrace to a kick ahead and scrum-half Bevan was in support to ride the scrambled defence and land Bears’ fifth try of the afternoon.
Hooker Treder, on her home debut, kept Loughborough in the fight as she burst through a half-gap to put her side within 15 points with half-an-hour remaining.
Hopes of that score becoming a turning point were extinguished when Marston-Mulhearn showed strength in the carry and offloaded for Butchers to cross the line on the hour-mark and entering the final ten minutes, Nigrelli wrestled over for Bristol’s seventh try.
There was a late flurry of scoring action as Jess Weaver looped a glorious pass for fellow replacement Williams-Morris to finish in the left corner but Bristol had the last laugh, with a rolling maul resulting in Atkin-Davies rumbling over in stoppage time.
LIGHTNING: Rollie, Tasker (vc), Hardy, Morrall, Mataitoga, Rowland, Davey; Trevarthen, Treder, Belisle, Ives Campion, Duguid, Wassell, Kabeya, Malcolm (c).
Replacements: Meuller, Curphey, Clifford, Hibbert-Jones, Taufoou, Weaver, Williams, Williams-Morris
BRISTOL: Hesketh, Varley, Murray, Reed (cc), Wills, Aitchison, Bevan; Botterman, Skeldon, Bern, Cunningham, Ward (cc), Butchers, Gallagher, Marston-Mulhearn.
Replacements: Atkin-Davies, Pyrs, Clarke, Burns, Balogun, Nigrelli, Burgess, Smith.