Exeter Chiefs Women’s head coach Susie Appleby admitted her side had been in a “really physical” encounter as they kept alive their hopes of getting into the Allianz Premier 15s play-offs with a 17-12 victory over fellow high-flyers Loughborough Lightning at Sandy Park.

Keen to get back to winning ways following their loss to Saracens the previous week, Appleby’s side raced out of the traps, securing a 17-0 lead at the break through tries from Rachel Johnson and Laura Sheehan – and another seven ponts from the boot of American centre Gabby Cantorna.

The second half, however, proved a much tougher proposition for the Devonians as Loughborough hit back strongly, claiming a converted try from Megan Davey and a last-minute score in the corner from Helena Rowland to secure a losing bonus-point.

Post-game, Appleby knew her side had been in a real battle, but was pleased with the resilience they had shown.

“It was a really tough game. It was really physical out there by the looks of things. Our players right now are exhausted,” she admitted. “I’m really pleased with the first half. In the second half we needed to do more of the same and up it, but we just lost our way a little bit. However, it’s a great result at the end of the day.”

Ahead of kick-off, Appleby had been challenging her side to take what they had worked on in training into the match and was thrilled that her players had listened to the messages from herself and Amy Garnett.

“There’s some pleasing things today,” she added. “Some things we specifically worked on in the week showed up in that game. That’s what we’re asking for.

“There was just a bit of loose stuff in the second half, but our defence was back to how we need it to be against a top four side. Our kick chase was also much better as well.”

After an initial flurry from the visitors, the Chiefs grew into the game, taking a commanding lead at the break, with winger Sheehan’s try right on half-time providing the perfect end to the first half performance. Appleby was impressed with how the Irish winger performed on her first start, but also singled second-row McKinley Hunt out for praise, after a barnstorming performance that saw her wreak havoc amongst the Loughborough defence.

“I thought Laura was outstanding, but I thought our standout forward was McKinley Hunt who was unbelievable today,” said Appleby, before highlighting the challenge of having to switch fly-half following Taylor Black’s season-ending injury.

“Pat was mixed and sometimes tried to do too much, but she’s more comfortable at nine. It takes a side time to gel with different half-backs, so when your 10 changes, it takes a bit of adjustment. Now we’ve got some time, we can adjust to how Pat plays which is a little different to Taylor.”

In a hugely physical game, both sides saw a number of players suffer some huge hits, with flanker Johnson forced off with an arm injury.

“She’s alright. There’s a dislocation and possibly a break, but she’s going with the medics and she’ll get looked after and be assessed.”

The league now takes an extended break ahead of the Women’s Six Nations Championship with several Chiefs players involved for their respective countries. Reflecting on those call-ups, Appleby was keen to reflect on just how far the players have come, with several of the international contingent having never played at this level before the start of the season.

“It’s just been amazing. Flo Robinson, it’s her first Prem 15s season and she’s got a call up into the Six Nations squad which is brilliant. Merryn Doidge is exactly the same. We’ve got Laura with Ireland and Abbie Fleming and Niamh Terry in the Welsh squad.”

With two rounds to go of her side’s debut season, Appleby admitted that she is looking for “good, consistent performances for 70 minutes” as they face a trip to Sale Sharks, before hosting Gloucester-Hartpury on the final day of the season.

Looking ahead to the Sale game, Appleby is expecting a very different encounter to their previous meeting at Sandy Park just before Christmas.

“Sale away is going to be incredibly different to when they came to Sandy Park and to be honest, didn’t represent themselves very well. We know they are an improving side who are getting better and better every week.”

With her side’s first season in the league almost at a close, Appleby insisted she was “pleased with where we’re at,” having developed at a rate of knots throughout their debut campaign.

“Some things could be better, but the main thing is that we’ve now beaten all top four sides in this league, in our first season, so we’re really pleased.”