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Canmore's Phillips, Bristol Bears clinch first playoff berth in Premier 15s

“I completely ran a little bit like the Tasmanian Devil – running and jumping over rucks."

BRISTOL – In front of more than 4,000 screaming fans at the 135-year-old Ashton Gate Stadium in England, Canmore’s Holly Phillips and the Bristol Bears Women did something special.

As time ticked away late in the game during the 77th minute, the elite rugby team needed one try to re-write history and book its first ticket to the Allianz Premier 15s playoffs.

The occasion was massive last Saturday (May 7) and last year’s champion the Harlequins wasn’t about to make it easy on the underdogs Bears, which were only metres away from scoring.

Phillips said her pre-game nerves were bouncing off the wall and the 22-year-old Canmore-raised rugby star then had a little extra pressure during the biggest play of the game.

Pressing for a try just 22 metres out, the Bears had a lineout, which Phillips tossed in before charging back into the play with ready hands and fast feet.

As a teammate was tackled, the former Banff Bear received the ball and gained a few metres before passing it off again while being tackled to the ground. A few seconds later during the same sequence, teammate Manon Johnes touched down the playoff-clinching try.

“I completely ran a little bit like the Tasmanian Devil – running and jumping over rucks,” said Phillips.

“Luckily, I passed the ball off [when I got tackled] and two passes later the try was scored. … It’s one of those tiny little sort of pit stops you have to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and where you are, which was really special.”

Despite losing 43-26, the Bears’ four tries in the match earned a bonus point and the club reached 60 points on the season, good enough for a top-four playoff berth.

“That’s the first time in Bristol Bears Women history that they’ve ever made a semifinal, so to be a part of that was just absolutely incredible,” Phillips said. “When we realized we actually just made history, it was really, really special.”

Just a year prior, during Phillips rookie season, the Bears finished the campaign in eighth place with four wins.

Far from the top-four squad the team is today with an 11-5-1 record and 60 points with one regular season match left in the season.

“That was our target at the start of the season, top four,” said head coach Dave Ward post-game. “Was it a high target to set for ourselves? Absolutely.”

The winning culture switch started with a mindset shift for the women’s club, and some much-needed and long overdue financial backing from the Bristol’s men’s program that provided an extra punch.

Phillips said the women’s team didn’t have the training facilities of a top-four team until this season and they’ve taken an inch and gone a mile with it.

A versatile player on the pitch, some might remember Phillips as a bruising force during her Banff days, crushing over the Albertan competition. Although, over the years, her game has constantly evolved at every level from Banff to Canada’s U20 programs, and now, in Bristol, the city she was born in, where she can run the ball, lock horns, and be an overall impact player when called upon.

“I’m confident, but hungry,” she said.

“Being involved in that eighth place squad last season, I loved it and it was a step up from what I was used to. But actually in hindsight now, looking where we are and where we’ve come from, the growth of the game has been massive and the backing we’ve had completely shows on the pitch where we’re playing and where we are in the Prem’.”

After wrapping up the regular season, the Bears face off against either the Saracens, Harlequins, or Exeter Chiefs on May 22 in the do-or-die semifinal match.

On June 3, the two victorious teams from the semis will clash in the league championship game.

“We want to win it all,” said Phillips. “It’s an exciting time to be in Bear country.”

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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