The final weekend of the regular Guinness Premiership season came to a close without any of the shock results we have become accustomed to. The four teams ending up in the play-off places were the most deserving having managed their squads through two international windows and maintained their definitive styles of play throughout.
Leicester ended up at the top of the tree with a performance of great dominance against a Bristol side who had finally given up the ghost. Leicester scored 11 tries, shared out between the backs and the forwards to give the squad the impetus to move onto their crunch matches against Cardiff in the Heineken Cup and Bath, again (!), in the Premiership semi-finals. Leicester won the match 73 – 3 which must have been a very upsetting way for the Bristol players to bow out of their season.
Bristol will try to bounce back into the Premiership without the services of Lemi, Perry, Ward-Smith and Regan but they will hope that the talents of players such as Robinson and the Arscott brothers will help them top the re-branded Championship next season.
Harlequins secured a home semi-final with a blistering start to their match at The Stoop against Newcastle. Harlequins secured the bonus point that ensured their second-placed finish within the first half hour of the match. That they then relaxed and failed to put Newcastle to the sword will not worry Dean Richards as they prepare for their clash against London Irish in a fortnight. Quins won this one 31 – 12 but if they are to win the title this season they will hope one of their experienced fly-halves, Evans or Malone, will return to fitness in time.
London Irish overcame the potentially tricky banana skin of an away fixture against a buoyant Worcester by securing a bonus point victory and ensuring they avoided Leicester in the semi-finals. Worcester were no pushover and at half-time Irish appeared a bit nervy going in at 10 – 10. Class told in the end with the London team taking the spoils 32 – 15. Whilst home advantage will ensure Quins are favourites for the semi, Irish are capable of pulling off an upset and the match should be a high-scoring, exciting affair.
Bath’s home victory against Saracens was by no means a walk in the park, especially after Chris Wyles scored the fastest try in the Premiership this season with only 26 seconds on the clock. Saracens ensured the game was a bruising encounter but in the end their 3 yellow cards proved to be their undoing as they lost momentum and the match by 33 – 18.
Bath will go into their semi against Leicester as underdogs but they will fancy their chances having missed out so narrowly in the Heineken Cup quarter finals. Having a weekend off will also help them to recover from their aches and pains in the knowledge that Leicester will have to contend with a Cardiff team boasting bruisers of their own in Jamie Roberts and Xavier Rush.
Sale knew their ability to get into the play-offs wasn’t in their hands but they did all they could on the final day of their season, securing a bonus point victory at home to Northampton, 24 – 10. The season will be a disappointment for Sale but they are ensured of their Heineken Cup spot next season and will need top rebuild a squad coming to the end of it’s lifespan with the departures of Chabal, Fernandez Lobbe, McAlister and others. Northampton will be satisfied with their first season back in the top flight and still have a cup to fight for with the European Challenge Cup semi finals this weekend.
Wasps put the final nail in Gloucester’s coffin with a resounding victory to end their season on a high, 34 – 3. The bonus point win means Wasps ended up in 7th place and all Wasps fans will be rooting for a Bourgoin win in the Challenge Cup which would ensure their participation in the Heineken Cup next season.
Gloucester, for all their early season promise, ended in 6th place and are set to rip apart their squad and start again. Olly Barkley and Iain Balshaw are the first high profile names to jump ship, Barkley scurrying back to the safe haven of Bath after a season of unfulfilled promise at Kingsholm and Balshaw chasing the Euros at Biarritz.
The season has been full of fantastic matches and whilst most pundits would envisage Leicester taking the title come 16th May, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple more twists yet to come in this campaign.