Loughborough Lightning began their Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby campaign with defeat away at an experienced Saracens outfit.
The hosts at the StoneX Stadium took a ten-point lead in at the break with Canada international Sophie De Goede crossing twice either side of an Leanne Infante effort and Lightning captain Rachel Malcolm – fresh from leading Scotland to WXV 2 glory – getting her side on the scoresheet.
But the hosts added 31 unanswered points after the break as their strong bench helped turn the screw with Zoe Harrison, Poppy Cleall, Marlie Packer and Sydney Gregson crossing for tries after a penalty try had also been awarded.
Just five minutes had been played when the opening score was registered and it came after a strong period of pressure on the Loughborough 22, England scrum-half Infante drifted from the edge of a ruck and cleverly passed back inside to the rampaging diagonal run of De Goede to race over untouched for an unconverted try.
Saracens were immediately reduced to 14 players when Lotte Clapp was yellow carded for a high tackle on Chloe Rollie and, during a five-minute spell when as many penalties were conceded, the hosts lost a second winger when Coreen Grant was sent to the bin for ten minutes.
Lightning twice turned down kickable penalties and their bravery paid off as Daisy Hibbert-Jones fed Malcolm on a smart angled close-range run to burrow over for a try that Helena Rowland improved from the tee.
Saracens were restored to the full complement entering into the second quarter and moved ahead on the scoreboard as De Goede powered through for her second try before Infante sidestepped through a drifting defence to break through under the posts, with De Goede opening a ten-point lead with the successful conversion.
Having scored three tries during the Allianz Cup campaign, Bo Westcombe-Evans set pulses racing with a brilliant break from 22 to 22, but she ran out of support as black shirts swarmed the breakdown.
With the last play of the first half, Lightning went in search of a score to close the gap with Emma Hardy producing a fine grubber in behind. But the period of pressure ended as Westcombe-Evans was bundled into touch.
The second half started with Lightning on the front foot, with Westcombe-Evans surging down the left wing. Saracens scrambled well to stop the score but Cleall became the third home player to be cautioned for illegally playing the scrum-half.
Georgina Tasker on more than one occasion turned Saracens with sparkling breaks down the wing with Chloe Rollie in close support, but pressure could not be applied to force a score.
With one clever kick downfield that forced a penalty to be conceded, Saracens kicked to the corner and when the maul was deemed to be stopped illegally, the referee raced under the posts to award a penalty try and Katie Trevarthen was sent to the sin bin. Shortly afterwards, Cath O’Donnell was also cautioned and Saracens moved further ahead when Cleall drove over and then it was Zoe Harrison’s turn to race over in the corner after a fine pass from recently-crowned World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year, Packer.
Lightning, to their immense credit, did not drop their heads and managed to hold up a rolling maul, but it merely delayed the inevitable as Packer rumbled over and with, 30 seconds left on the clock, Saracens secured their eighth try with a sweeping move from deep that was coolly finished by Gregson.
SARACENS: 15 Breach, 14 Grant, 13 Gregson, 12 Bridger, 11 Clapp (cc), 10 MacDougall, 9 Infante; 1 Gondwe, 2 Campbell, 3 Clifford, 4 Evans, 5 Taylor, 6 De Goede, 7 Kasolo, 8 Cleall
Replacements: 16 Field, 17 Loyola, 18 Rose, 19 Galligan, 20 Packer (cc), 21 Wyrwas, 22 Zoe Harrison, 23 Cara Wardle.
LIGHTNING: 15 Rollie, 14 Tasker, 13 Rowland, 12 Hardy, 11 Westcombe-Evans, 10 Nelson, 9 Davey; 1 Trevarthen, 2 Waudby, 3 Belisle, 4 Ives Campion, 5 O’Donnell, 6 Wassell, 7 Malcolm (c), 8 Hibbert-Jones
Replacements: 16 Andrews, 17 Curphey, 18 Clifford, 19 Meuller, 20 Svoboda, 21 Weaver, 22 Green, 23 Scantlebury.