EXETER Chiefs Women have welcomed back prop DaLeaka Menin and centre Kanako Kobayashi for tomorrow’s Allianz PWR clash with local rivals Bristol Bears (1pm).
Third plays fourth at Shaftsbury Park as the second half of the league season kick-starts this weekend.
Reflecting on the first half of the league season, head coach Susie Appleby said: “I am pretty happy with where we are. There have been changes to our squad given the English qualified players requirements, but it’s meant we have seen more of some players that we would not have seen and that’s really positive.
“Maddie Feaunati was a massive positive for us, plus seeing the likes of Dani (Preece) and Sophie (Langford) in the central field at times, and then Hannah Sams came off the bench last weekend, Lizzie Hanlon has been doing really well and Katie (Buchanan) has been smashing it; there have been lots of young players who have had an opportunity.
“Those two massive games against Gloucester-Hartpury and Saracens probably could have gone either way if we got a few things a little more right, but we came away with points. We are one point off second at the moment with everything to play for in the second half of the season.”
The first half has seen Chiefs win four of their five away games, including their most recent victory over Sale Sharks Women by a margin of 51 points to bring their points difference to 118.
Appleby added: “The pack we had out on Saturday gave us really good consistency. The inclusion of Maisy (Allen) and Ebs (Ebony Jefferies) as starters saw them in the right place at the right time and that allows us to flow. Hope (Rogers) has been a massive addition in the last few games. She is incomparable in the way that she can play.
"Harriet (Millar-Mills) is getting used to what we do too. When you have got that cohesion, it allows the backs to perform. It was a pleasing performance to go all the way up there for a second time and come out with five points, and be in a really positive frame of mind for this weekend.”
Ahead of tomorrow’s match, Opta statistics have revealed Chiefs and Bristol are the only two teams to have registered 1,000+ metres in contact in this season’s Allianz PWR and are two of just three teams to have averaged more than six line-breaks per game.
Chiefs’ Hope Rogers (79%) and Bristol Bears’ Megan Varley (80%) have the two highest carry dominance rates of any players to have made 50+ carries this term, while Varley is also joint-first for line breaks with 13, alongside Saracens’ Paige Farries and Chiefs winger Claudia MacDonald.
“Both sides like to play, which always makes for a very close and usually exciting game,” commented Appleby. “Bristol have powerful forwards; so have we. They have got a strong central field with Amber Reed in there, she is so experienced, and Holly Aitchison at 10 now. That whole 9, 10, 12 axis is a real positive for them.
“In terms of our own 9, 10, 12 axis, Tess (Alex Tessier) wants to play rugby; she’s a real ‘jouer’, which we really like, but at times you need to be a little more pragmatic in this league. Tomorrow is probably going to be one of these times. She is a brilliant player.
“Brooke (Bradley) is having a good season and is getting a chance to play, play and play, and that’s when Brooke excels. Those half-back combinations are going to go toe to toe, and that’s how it should be. We’ve got two really good back rows too. Anything can cancel each other out so that’s when you need to take small opportunities and capitalise on them.”
On the bench, Chiefs see the return of hooker Cliodhna Moloney, lock Nichola Fryday, back-rower Edel McMahon and scrum-half Olivia Ortiz.
Exeter Chiefs Women: Merryn Doidge (vc), Claudia MacDonald, Kanako Kobayashi, Gabby Cantorna, Katie Buchanan, Alex Tessier, Brooke Bradley, Hope Rogers, Emily Tuttosi, DaLeaka Menin, Harriet Millar-Mills, Poppy Leitch (c), Ebony Jefferies, Maisy Allen, Rachel Johnson. Replacements: Cliodhna Moloney, Abby Middlebrooke, Lizzie Hanlon, Nichola Fryday, Taz Bricknell, Edel McMahon, Olivia Ortiz, Lori Cramer.