Ratettes upset Uni to reclaim women’s crown
Photo: Red Bandana / Karen Watson
Warringah reclaimed the Sydney Women’s Rugby title last Saturday with a hard-fought 21-17 win over reigning champions Sydney University at Boronia Park, with flyhalf Chloe Leaupepe starring with a 16pt haul. Having finished second on the ladder behind Uni, and lost twice to them in the regular season, the Ratettes saved their best until last with a determined effort that proved too much in the end for a fast-finishing Uni side, admittedly missing some key figures.
Shorn of three of their finest through injury in Wallaroos points-machine Ash Hewson, second-row Sera Naiqama, and try-scoring centre Kimberley Davey, the Students still came into the decider as the favourites based on their unbeaten record across the regular season. But they encountered a pumped-up Warringah side that came out firing and should have built more than a 14-10 advantage by the break. Another try after the restart stretched them out to an 11pt lead, before a last quarter rally from a determined Uni almost saw them snatch victory at the death, only for the Ratettes to hold firm and reclaim the Jack Scott Cup for the first time since 2013.
It didn’t take long for the underdogs to establish a foothold in the game, a succession of ball-carries taking the fight to the Premiers and leading to plenty of territory in the opposition half. And after the forwards had forged a platform in the 5th minute, the backs cut loose, shifting it from coast-to-coast and stretching the Uni line before Leaupepe went over in the corner.
The flyhalf converted her own good work for a 7-0 lead, and continued to shine after the restart, mixing up her kicking game to pin the Students inside their own half, and backed up by an eager kick-chase from her midfield support.
Time and again they worked themselves into good positions, with the slick handling of centre Crystal Maguire, winger Mardi Watts and fullback Shanice Parker to the fore. Their only downfall was the lack of a killer instinct inside the red zone, as dropped ball or a silly penalty cruelled any further additions to the scoreboard.
But you can’t keep a good team down, and having seen little pill in the opening quarter, Uni made the most of a rare foray upfield – and some indecision from the Rats – to strike back. A grubber in behind from pivot Jade Fonua should have been comfortably dealt with, but after two Ratettes seemingly left it for each other, industrious outside centre Emily Chancellor, a flanker playing out of position in the absence of Kimberley Davey, got their first.
Scooping up the loose ball, she pinned back the ears and went for the line, only for some desperate defence – and perhaps a sneaky pullback that went unseen by the officials – to keep her out. However, pressure from the advancing Uni line off an ensuing scrum forced a poor clearing kick from behind the posts by the previously unflappable Leaupepe, the ball was returned with interest by a swarm of blue and gold jerseys, and rampaging tighthead Brittany Le’auanae was simply too big and too strong from a couple of metres out.
Hooker Lope Leiataua, stepping into the illustrious kicking shoes of Ash Hewson, the leading scorer in this season’s competition with 109pts, couldn’t find her radar with her first effort and Warringah maintained a two-point advantage.
That soon turned into nine points when the Ratettes backline clicked into gear again just after the half hour, and this time made it count. Happy to shift it to both flanks and back again at every opportunity, they had threatened on the edges several times only for some terrific last-ditch scragging tackles from Uni’s well-drilled backs to thwart them, with centre Chancellor and wingers Nat Crow and Bronte Stutchbury very much to the fore when it came to putting their bodies on the line to preserve the status quo.
But they were finally outdone in the 33rd minute when Mardi Watts took off down the right flank off a neat pass from Maguire and attracted defenders, and when the ball was recycled back infield, the Ratettes had the numbers for the predatory Leaupepe to dummy her way through a gap and dive home.
Another successful conversion opened up a 14-5 lead that would have done some justice to Warringah’s first half performance if they had managed to hold it until the break. But back came a spirited Uni just a couple of minutes later, and struggling to open up their opponent’s defence with ball in hand, they took heed of their previous success, kept it tight and came away with the chocolates once more.
A barrage of pick-and-drives got them within range and Lope Leiataua almost went over, only for some stout goal-line defence to keep her at bay. But fellow front-rower Tasmin ‘Taz’ Sheppard was not to be outdone, the ball recycled for the loosehead to have a couple of thrusts at the line before finally breaking the Ratettes’ resistance.
While the game management of the missing Hewson was an obvious negative for the Students, it was the absence of her kicking skills that were perhaps being most keenly felt when Leiataua’s second conversion attempt – from an angle – fell wide of the uprights. But given the lack of possession they had enjoyed in the opening stanza, and the amount of tackles they had been forced to make to keep out Warringah’s waves of attack, you got the impression the Students would have gone to the sheds pretty content to be just 14-10 down.
Sure enough, a reinvigorated Uni returned from the sheds intent on arresting their opponent’s momentum, with plenty of starch in the tackle on display in the early exchanges as they sought to disrupt Warringah’s flow and get their hands on the ball for some concerted periods of time.
But they came unstuck again after just six minutes. The Ratettes probed the left flank and would have been away were it not for yet another valiant tackle from Nat Crow, covering what was her opposite wing. Quick ball left the regrouping Uni line off-kilter, and when it was sent through the hands to the opposite flank, Mardi Watts had the time and space to run home try number three for the girls from the northern beaches.
The laser-like precision of Leaupepe’s right boot had Warringah out to a suddenly healthy-looking 21-10, and faced with the realisation that their ‘unbeatable’ dream season was fading away, Uni had no other choice but to dig deep and find something from somewhere, if they were to turn it around.
The catalyst was Iliseva Batibasaga. The scrumhalf came into the decider as the leading try-scorer in the competition with 15, and had shown in her efforts thus far that she was a genuine threat in possession, with an eye on the unpredictable.
Finally forced to defend inside their own 22 for a sustained amount of time, it was now the Ratettes who were scrambling to keep their line intact. But they were caught napping after conceding a penalty just before the hour, Batibasaga tapping and going herself before being felled just short, only for the support to arrive and recycle quickly enough for the alert halfback to go again and snipe her way over for number 16 of the year.
This time, Lope Leiataua had no problem crossing the black dot, and with just under 20 minutes remaining on the Boronia Oval clock, it was game on again at 21-17.
Suddenly reinvigorated, Uni ramped up the pressure and intensity. Still struggling to make many inroads if they tried to shift the ball to the channels, their road to redemption appeared to lie through the battering ram of their forwards. Cue a blitzkrieg of pick-and-drives right up the middle of the park, and a host of breakdown penalties conceded by a stuttering Warringah. But the green wall held firm.
The final 10 minutes was a war of attrition, Uni seemingly with a bit more oxygen left in the tank to throw the kitchen sink at their stubborn opponent, the Ratettes looking like a team preying for the final whistle but simply refusing to throw it all away at this late stage, despite running on empty. Credit here to the pack in particular, skipper and Wallaroo Emily Robinson leaving nothing out there, and she was ably assisted by hooker Sarah Laman and lock Natalie Maclarn, in terms of repeatedly going to the well.
Uni continued to push for a late winner, but Warringah weren’t to be denied, making up for those earlier defeats at the hands of the two-time Premiers in style, and seeing the job through to the final whistle to get their hands on the Jack Scott Cup for the first time in four years. Could it be the first half of a landmark double-Premiership winning year for the Rats/Ratettes? Over to you fellas.
WARRINGAH 21 (Chloe Leaupepe 2, Mardi Watts tries; Chloe Leaupepe 3 cons) defeated SYDNEY UNIVERSITY 17 (Brittany Le’auanae, Tasmin Sheppard, Iliseva Batibasaga tries; Lope Leitaua con)
Grand Final Line-Ups:
Warringah: 1 Emily Robinson (c); 2 Sarah Laman; 3 Evelyn Horomia; 4 Natalie Maclarn; 5 Sabine Blakeman; 6 Amanda Gibson; 7 Lynda Robertson; 8 Alaura Deveruex; 9 Cobie-Jane Morgan; 10 Chloe Leaupepe; 11 Eugenia Dennison; 12 Amy Turner; 13 Crystal Maquire; 14 Mardi Watts; 15 Shanice Parker – Replacements: 16 Aggie Palu; 17 Lilin Tay; 18 Rachel Brennan; 19 Danielle Meskell; 20 Chris Ross; 21 Remy Lowe; 22 Matalena Wilson; 23 Sarah Oxley
Sydney University: 1 Tasmin Sheppard; 2 Lope Leiataua; 3 Brittany Le’auanae; 4 Haruka Takahashi; 5 Claire Zanotti; 6 Gabi Piola; 7 Fiona Jones; 8 Gracie Hamilton (c); 9 Iliseva Batibasaga; 10 Jade Fonua; 11 Nat Crow; 12 Barbara Waddell; 13 Emily Chancellor; 14 Bronte Stutchbury; 15 Kirrily Laws – Replacements: 16 Dianne Infante; 17 Tuaine Inamata; 18 Vivian Gama; 19 Bridie O’Gorman; 20 Marjorie Linares; 21 Ashleigh Hewson; 22 Isabella Parkman; 23 Celine Tan