Girls in green battle to the last
University of Leeds 1s 19-20 University of Birmingham 1s
Women’s Rugby Union
The University of Leeds women’s rugby union team came up agonisingly short in the final of the BUCS Trophy against Birmingham. They were playing at an event called BUCS Big Wednesday, an extravaganza that brought together the best university sporting talent in the UK, which this year was held at Sheffield Hallam.
Despite the early start (the coach was due to leave at 7.10am), the girls were in excellent spirits and were both excited and nervous for the challenge that lay ahead of them. Despite their struggles in the league, the ‘do-or-die’ nature of the cup has suited them down to the ground. The team steamrollered Glasgow Caledonian 107-0 in the last 32, before eliminating Nottingham 10-0. The Gryphons’ rock-solid defence was again in evidence as they saw off the challenge of Edge Hill 17-0 in the quarter-finals, before a tough away trip to Glasgow in the last four yielded a 12-5 win.
The atmosphere was extremely relaxed on the way down to South Yorkshire, as they awaited what would undoubtedly be their toughest task to date. Birmingham had recently secured the title in the Midlands 1A division and boasted a superb points difference of +153.
Following a warm-up and a rousing team talk in their own half, the game was underway. Supported by a travelling contingent of parents, coaches and friends, the team made a fast start. Pretty much straight from the start, lock Sara Wright took the ball confidently and looked to drive into the opposition’s half. This was followed by a blistering turn of pace from Rosie Blount, who left a few Birmingham players for dust down the right-wing before being brought down. This set the tone for the onslaught that was to follow. Leeds were penning the West Midland outfit in their own half, with pinpoint passing key to their early dominance. After a Birmingham player was adjudged not to have released in the ruck, the team won a penalty. Hannah Morton’s attempt was a good one, but the ball was slotted just wide of the post. The pressure exerted by Leeds continued unabated however. The team were dominating at set-pieces, and a superb driving maul from a lineout ensued, with Morton very close to grounding.
However, the breakthrough came after ten minutes. Winger Ayotunde Adeyemi made a stunning breakaway down the right. She was momentarily held up 20 yards from goal, before she offloaded to Bo Jackson hurtled over. The conversion was missed, but the team were spurred on by the try.
Leeds continued to pour forward, with Vicky Carbutt superbly offloading to Jackson, before Nicky Dobra went on a sprightly run down the left. A few minutes later, Ruth Florey capitalised on a Birmingham fumble, with the ball eventually finding its way to Dobra, who in turn found Adeyemi. There seemed to be nothing on, but she saw a gap and jinked through to ground the ball in between the thicket of defenders. Morton’s composed conversion made it 12-0 after just 20 minutes, and it would have been tempting for the girls to think that the gold medal might already be theirs. However, Birmingham were surging back into the match and putting the Gryphons’ line under serious pressure, with a try eventually being scored down the left-wing.
The favourites had the size advantage, but Leeds were matching in them in the collisions, with some great hits preventing Birmingham progress. The game then descended into a bit more of a scrap, with the bulk of the play taking place in the middle third of the pitch. Just before the break though, the table-toppers fashioned some space down the right-flank and made no mistake. Thankfully, the conversion was not slotted home, but the pressure had been well and truly ramped up, with the score now at 12-10.
Nevertheless, the team came back fighting after a morale-boosting huddle at the interval. Leeds sought to meet their opponents and impose a high defensive line, getting in the faces of the Birmingham players, which helped to nullify their attacking threat for the time being. The ferocity of the Leeds rearguard was exemplified by Amber Barnicoat, who stopped an attack in her tracks, as her adversary was clattered to the ground.
However, Birmingham had smelt blood and a dramatic turnaround was complete on 54 minutes, as their right-winger picked up the ball on halfway and danced passed four missed tackles to go over in the corner. This could have been the hammer blow for the girls, but the missed conversion did mean that they only four points off retaking the lead. This optimistic outlook paid dividends five minutes after Birmingham had seized the initiative. There looked to be nothing on as Barnicoat received the ball square on to the opponents’ defence. However, she spotted a chink of light, and bustled through, despite almost being wrestled to the ground.
Leeds were giving it everything they had, and the incredible camaraderie and spirit in the camp shone through in the latter stages, as the girls dug deep, discovering new reserves of energy. It was a case of Birmingham attack versus Leeds defence, and the Gryphons were putting in a herculean display to repel a formidable opponent, who were egged on by some slightly over-involved parents.
However, this hard work was cruelly undone with ten minutes remaining. Following a harsh sin-bin for Blount, who was penalised for a high tackle, Birmingham opted for the tap-kick close to the Leeds line, and even though the defence tried to prevent a try, it was in vain.
This was a devastating setback, and being a woman light made things all the more difficult. However, the team regrouped and went again for one last push. Their tenacity offensively led to a scrum around 60 metres upfield. Despite this ultimately coming to nothing, this was not for lack of trying, with the forward pack drawing on hundreds of hours of training over the course of the season. A final foray forward in the shape of a line-out gave Leeds hope, but the attacking threat that the team had posed throughout was snuffed out by Birmingham, who eventually won the ball from the ruck and kicked into touch to jubilant celebrations on their side.
The girls were understandably devastated having put in such a monumental effort and tears were shed, but the integrity and sportsmanship of the team was never in doubt. Shortly after the final whistle, ‘three cheers for Birmingham’ was shouted by the team, who received an appropriate response from their equally shattered opponents. They were the favourites, but the fellow Russell Group institution knew that the Gryphons had given them a real run for their money.
This experience, although tinged with disappointment, was embraced by the girls. A less tight-knit team would have been resorted to recriminations, but everyone recognised what an incredible effort every player put in. The rowdy return journey showed that the team are very close, and if they can show similar spirit next season, then league and cup success will surely follow.
‘Preparations have been quite intense (we’ve had a lot of extra training sessions), but it’s a lot more about bonding as a team and making sure we are on the same wavelength.’ – Alice Savage
‘We have come so much further as a team this year. Last year we got knocked out by Nottingham in the second round of the cup, and this year we beat them. It’s a lot further than we expected to come especially because we’re not doing great in the league. It just shows that when we put our hearts into it that we have really got it and we can bring it as a team’ – Fran Robbs de la Hoyde
‘It is not just as a team, we bring it as a family as well. Everything is about being a family; we’re all brothers’ – George Spencer
‘We were definitely the most passionate team out on that field. We played as a team and that is the most important thing. We played better [than Birmingham], we did everything that we needed to do and I am so, so proud of how we played today. We played the moves we were planning to play, we worked as a team and our defence line was so strong. All the tackles that were made today were incredible. I am so proud of our girls and I cannot wait to play with you next year. Best team ever.’ – Bo Jackson
‘The team tried and I just got the glory, but they did all the hard work.’ – Amber Barnicoat
(The above quote was met with mutters of ‘not true’ from several supportive team-mates, who added that she ‘picked an amazing line, ran and didn’t stop.’)
Forward of the match – Sara Wright
Back of the match – Rosie Blount
Coach’s player of the match – Tilly Heggie
Opposition’s player of the match – Ayotunde Adeyemi
Leeds matchday squad
- Dominique Nielsen
- Vicky Carbutt
- Amber Barnicoat
- Sara Wright
- Hazel Cox
- Hannah Carmyllie
- Stephanie Exley
- Tilly Heggie
- Ruth Flory
- Hannah Morton
- Ayotunde Adeyemi
- Bo Jackson
- Nicky Dobra
- Clare Chapman
- Rosie Blount
- Katie Hird
- Kim Fitzmaurice
- Alice Savage
- Georgina Spencer
- Bethany Peacock
- Rachel King
- Becky Johnston