Bath ghost into Europe
I confess to having been largely unenthused by the last round of Premiership matches. Normally there is either a relegation, top four place or a home semi-final to be decided. This year, we had what looked like a fairly routine set of fixtures to play in the Saturday sunshine with a few teams playing for the carrot of top-level European rugby next season.
Bath were the beneficiaries of severe lapses by Gloucester and Sale to sneak into that vital sixth spot and ensure that their season doesn’t go down as a complete failure. Matt Banahan, in his final performance for the side, scored a stunning hat-trick to guide the hosts to a 63-19 victory. That result meant that Sale had to beat Leicester to stay ahead of Bath, but the Tigers rebounded from last week’s horror with aplomb by crushing the men from Manchester 35-13. George Ford was particularly inspired for the visitors. Gloucester were now the only team that could overhaul their West Country rivals, but with their qualification assured due to their presence in the final of the Challenge Cup, it was unlikely that they would find the resolve to trouble Saracens at Allianz Park. They didn’t and succumbed to a 62-12 thrashing.
In the ‘battle for third’, Wasps travelled to Newcastle knowing that a win would secure them an away semi-final at Saracens as opposed to Exeter. The stakes were high. It seemed like Wasps were cruising to that vital win, but (as we have come to expect from them) they allowed the Falcons right back into the game with a flurry of late tries before Willie Le Roux crossed very late on to settle any nerves and seal it 39-22.
The defending champions, Exeter, heaped more misery on Harlequins with a thumping 41-17 win at The Stoop. What was set to be arguably the biggest non-event turned out to be the tightest of the weekend. Worcester had the chance to finish ninth and consign Saints to tenth and looked set to do so, but Saints came from behind to win 32-24.
What happened elsewhere?
The first ever Pro14 preliminary finals took place on Saturday with Edinburgh looking to raid Munster, which they came dangerously close to doing. The Irish province had built a healthy lead before the Scots stormed back into it, eventually coming up short 20-16. The other match was far more clear cut as Scarlets stayed on track to defend their crown, running riot against Cheetahs 43-8.
Racing are hitting form at exactly the right time in the Top14. They smashed Agen 42-13 and finished a solitary point shy of top spot. The table-topping Montpellier were victims of Lyon, losing 32-24. Stade were lucky to stay in the division as they lost, but Oyonnax losing to Castres was enough for them. Pau, Clermont and Brive won the other games.
The two eye-catching results of the weekend in Super Rugby were Jaguares beating Chiefs away 23-19 and Blues finding something in them to sneak past Waratahs in Sydney. There were also wins for Hurricanes, Sharks, Stormers and Crusaders.
Hero of the week
George Ford led by example for Leicester when I had feared an implosion at Sale, given the farce of the last few weeks. I shall not give it to him though. Instead, it is going to Matt Banahan for his hat-trick in his final Bath appearance – a fitting way for one of their finest performers this last decade to bow out.
Villain of the week
This may seem a harsh one, but I believe it may end up costing Wasps a real shot at the title if they don’t sort it out before going to Saracens. Their uncanny ability to switch off and allow teams back into games is killing them.
Try of the week
Since our move to an English focus on the site, I have endeavoured to find an English recipient for these weekly awards on Premiership weekends particularly. However, I just could not resist giving it to Keith Earls this week after that sublime skill from Simon Zebo with the chip and chase followed by a pinpoint pass at top speed. Check it out.
Where will the playoffs be won and lost?
Who will be at the final?
What do you make of your team’s season?
Thoughts on the Pro14 format now that it is drawing to a conclusion in its inaugural year?
by Joe Large
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images