Alisha Joyce-Butchers: Sometimes you need to step back and realise how far you've come

Alisha Joyce-Butchers has been one of Bristol Bears' standout players en route to the final
©Bristol Bears

In the opening 25 minutes of Bristol Bears' Premiership Women's Rugby semi-final at Saracens, you could argue the signs were looking ominous. 

After a flowing move out to the right-wing, Coreen Grant bundled her way over to hand the hosts the lead before McKinley Hunt barged across the whitewash to put Saracens 14-0 ahead.

Considering no away team had ever won a PWR semi-final, the challenge for Dave Ward's troops had just become even tougher.

But rather than feeling sorry for themselves, there was an urgency amongst his players to stay focused.

"After the game, I was surprised because I saw a lot of things like ‘it wasn’t the best start’ but I don’t think that ever was a factor in the game," Bristol's Alisha Joyce-Butchers admits. "I think our composure through our leaders is outstanding and I think that showed in that Saracens game that keeping a cool head and not letting the external factors impact the game is something we have become really good at as a team."

The assumption might have been that Bristol would fold but doubt never crept into the minds of the Bears.

They adapted. The prolific Lark Atkin-Davies led the charge either side of half-time before Joyce-Butchers fed Courtney Keight to put the Bears in front.

And even after Reneeqa Bonner saw yellow and Bristol fell behind, the West Country outfit remained calm and looked assured in their processes. Atkin-Davies completed her hat-trick before Bonner redeemed herself in the best possible manner by dancing over for the winning score.

That 29-21 victory and the mentality displayed by the Bears encapsulates why they feel they are ready for their first-ever PWR final.

"We were in a position where we went to Saracens, not an easy place to win, an away semi-final, first-ever team to do that but in a way, I don’t think it was ever in doubt in our minds that we weren’t going to achieve that," adds Joyce-Butchers.

"This year felt different because I feel like we were ready to make the final. I think coming into this season and coming into that game [v Saracens], we had a confidence and aura about us that this is actually meant for us now."

These aren't empty words from the 27-year-old, either. Head coach Ward hasn't shied away from the fact that he wanted his side to become champions three years into his tenure. This is year three, their collective belief has grown and the club are now gearing up for Saturday’s final against reigning champions Gloucester-Hartpury.

Bristol's experience in the showpiece event may be limited but do-or-die scenarios are something which have shaped their development. In May 2022, leading 24-21 with three minutes remaining of their semi-final, Jennine Detiveaux's converted try for Exeter Chiefs Women broke their hearts. Just over 12 months later, they fell at the same hurdle, losing 21-12 at Gloucester-Hartpury.

Painful as both of those defeats were for the Bears and Joyce-Butchers, those oh-so-nears have been turned into positives.

"Two seasons in a row getting to a semi and we knew this season we wanted to get to that final," Joyce-Butchers says.

"We have learnt a lot from the last two semi-finals. It felt like we had a slight edge about us that we hadn’t had before [v Saracens]. When you get that feeling, you almost feel a little bit unstoppable.

"I think we need to have that same energy heading into Gloucester. They are a quality team. We will see how it goes!"

The Welsh international has been on this 'three-year' journey with the Bears since the beginning but after being a stalwart for the side in 2021/22, last term was a different story.

Back in October 2022, the back-rower suffered a serious knee injury against Scotland at the World Cup in New Zealand. She only made her return for Bristol in their final match of the regular campaign last June before playing a full 80 in the semi-finals.

However, 2023/24 has seen Joyce-Butchers make a major impression for both club and country, with Ward revealing the flanker has racked up over 1,000 playing minutes this season.

"I haven’t got a clue about that!" Joyce-Butchers laughs. "Do you know what, it is just nice to be back in the flow of things and not getting held back through injury.

"I have been back now for a full season and it has taken some time to get back into the swing of things. When you are out long-term injured like that, it doesn’t just come back to you naturally.

“You have got to really work and get a lot of minutes under your belt to be able to get back into form. I think I am starting to get there now towards the back end of the season which is really nice and it gives me a lot of confidence heading into the final. It has been a really good season for me so I can’t ask for much more to be honest."

And Joyce-Butchers' return to form hasn't gone unnoticed.

"Alisha is excellent for us for club and country," Bears and Wales scrum-half Keira Bevan says. "We rely on her heavily in those wide channels. Since coming back from injury, she has found amazing form. She had a really good Six Nations and she has transferred that back into club colours which is class for us."

Popping up in the wide channels was exactly what Joyce-Butchers did against Saracens to assist Keight, and while the Bears may not have showcased their well-established all-court game throughout that semi-final contest, the brand of rugby created by Ward and Backs and Attack Coach Tom Luke has been significant in elevating the confidence and belief of the squad.

"When we click, we really click and we play really exciting rugby and that is why I am so passionate about the style of rugby we play," Joyce-Butchers says.

"That is where we have grown. Within the structure we have, we are able to play the way we want to play. We have got players here with a ridiculous skill-set like Holly [Aitchison], Amber Reed or Jenny [Hesketh], Ella [Lovibond], I could name so many more. Ro [Marston-Mulhearn], we have got girls who are able to do ridiculous things and they have the opportunity and ability to do it here."

"We ask them [the players] to do stuff in training that I don’t think if people saw they would believe!" chuckles Ward. "We are saying just go for it. As a coach, myself and Tom, we will always say go for the 50/50s, go for the 75/25s. If it is going to create a bit of magic, let’s go for it and that is the mindset we are taking on Saturday.

"We have got to a stage now where we have taken our game and built for this for the last three years and we are really confident. We know the challenge [v Gloucester-Hartpury] and that is well documented."

Yet if Bristol are going to pick up the biggest accolade in women's club rugby, Ward emphasises the importance of the set-piece. In their semi-final against Saracens, they were on top in the lineout and at scrum time.

Considering the Bears have lost the last four meetings against Gloucester-Hartpury by an average of just seven points, Saturday's final at Sandy Park could come down to this area of the game.

"The set-piece is a huge part as always," Joyce-Butchers says. "We work really hard on it all season long. It is no different to this game.

"He [Dave Ward] puts a huge expectation on us to be world-class in that area and I believe we do deliver that in our set-piece game and it can be the difference between losing and winning big games, as I think it probably was against Saracens. I am looking forward to the challenge [on Saturday]. They have got some great set-piece players."

And one of those players Joyce-Butchers will no doubt be locking horns with is international teammate Bethan Lewis.

Frequent observers of the PWR will know there should be a Welsh flavour to Saturday's final, with the likes of Gloucester-Hartpury centre Hannah Jones and fly-half Lleucu George also ready to do battle with their fellow countrywoman. 

"I do speak to the girls all the time," Joyce-Butchers says. "I am really close to Beth. Beth was a bridesmaid at my wedding. We’re like best friends. Same with Han Jones so these girls are like sisters to me but we are used to challenging each other, training against each other, playing against each other all of the time so it comes quite naturally to us.

"We are very professional in that aspect. We want to show the best of women’s rugby and if that is playing against each other, that is what it is.

"I think it is just really exciting to have so many Welsh players in this final especially coming off the back of such a bad Six Nations, getting the wooden spoon but having so many Welsh players just shows that there is so much progress to be made in Welsh rugby so I think that is really exciting."

Joyce-Butchers may well link up with her Welsh colleagues next week as they face Spain at Cardiff Arms Park, with the winner qualifying for WXV2 in South Africa later this year.

She laughs as we tentatively discuss celebrations should Bristol lift the PWR title on Saturday, knowing they might have to be cut short if she is selected for Wales but any international goals aren't a distraction at this moment in time.

Gloucester-Hartpury have lost just once all season, they are the current champions and haven't suffered a defeat against the Bears since September 2021. Joyce-Butchers was part of the squad that day and is a certain starter at Sandy Park.

In his three-year plan, Ward has guided Bristol to where he envisioned them to be. The mentality the club have created, the squad they have built and the style of rugby they play has culminated in a maiden PWR final appearance. They might be the underdogs, but the signs suggest the Bears can create history.

"Sometimes you need to step back and realise how far you have come," Joyce-Butchers reflects. "For me personally, I haven’t reached a final internationally and this is the first time reaching a Prem final so this is really special for me and my family.

"I love playing for Bristol. I wouldn’t play for any other club and Dave knows that. We are like a family here. Not only for myself but for girls who have been here for a long, long time, I think it is going to be really special for them and I think it [winning the title] would show how far rugby has come in Bristol. This club really deserves it so it would mean the world to us."