This was a pivotal week in the Guinness Premiership with a vast amount up for stake at both ends of the table. Wasps welcomed Bath to Twickenham for the St. Georges Day celebrations, Northampton lost for the first time at home this season and Worcester’s six year life in England’s top division finally came to an end.
At Twickenham on Saturday the scene was set for what Steve Meehan, the Bath Head Coach, described as a quarter final between Wasps and Bath. The St. Georges Day celebrations would have been the last of things on their minds as the winner of this match would take pole position in the race for the final play-off position.
Wasps started brightly and starved Bath of the ball early on forcing the visitors to give away two easy penalties which Danny Cipriani duly converted. Bath were soon back in the game after an Olly Barkley penalty but they soon took the lead when Butch James strolled through a yawning gap in the Wasps defence before offloading to Danny Grewcock who moved the ball on until, after some more clinical passing, Joe Maddock dived over in the corner.
More bad news was to follow for Wasps when Maddock helped himself to his second after some neat hands from Nick Abendanon following a searing break from Barkley. After half time came the pinnacle moment in the game when, with the scores at 18-12 Wasps had an easy shot at goal to reduce the arrears but Cipriani chose to kick wide for Sackey but the ball soon went loose and into touch.
Bath soon made Wasps pay when Cipriani threw a telegraphed pass that Maddock plucked out of the air and jogged under the posts for his hat-trick. Just six minutes later the game was over when Barkley capped off his Man of Match performance with a neat try after a beautifully weighted pass from Butch James. Ben Jacobs grabbed a last minute consolation try but the damage was done and Bath ran out 35-19 winners.
That result meant that London Irish would have had to win at Kingsholm to remain in pole position for the final play-off spot with just a week left in the season. Gloucester have proved very hard to beat at Kingsholm all season and so it proved to be for the Exiles. They found themselves 27-3 down at half time after tries from Lesley Vainikolo and James Simpson-Daniel who grabbed his eighth try of the season after breaking from his own 22. Woeful indiscipline cost Irish in the end though as Nicky Robinson ended the game with 19 points of his own courtesy of his right boot.
Irish looked like launching an unlikely comeback early in the second half when Kieran Roache crossed the whitewash but Alistair Dickinson soon dummied his way over for the hosts and the game was soon out of Irish’s reach. The men from Reading did rally late on with tries from Dan Murphy and Steffon Armitage but it was too little too late and Gloucester ran out impressive winners 34-20.
At Welford Road, Leicester beat Harlequins 40-22 to guarantee them top spot and secure a home play-off semi final. The Tigers did trail 17-16 at the break as Toby Flood’s early try was cancelled out by tries from George Lowe and Danny Care.
In the second half, the Tigers opened up the Quins defence and opportunist tries from Matt Smith and Ben Youngs along with a penalty try put them out of sight. Joe Marler added a late consolation try for the visitors but by then the game was already lost.
The race for the other home play-off spot has now been made all the more interesting after Saracens edged Northampton out of an engaging encounter at Franklins Gardens. Ernst Joubert opened the scoring for Saracens and after Glen Jackson had added three more points in reply to Stephen Mylers three penalties the game was finely poised at 10-9. A penalty try just before half time however gave Northampton a 16-10 lead at half time. Saracens came storming back in the second half and well worked tries from Adam Powell and Rodd Penney put them in the box seat going into the final stages of the game. Northampton were not about to lie down and die though and with just two minutes to go Ben Foden forced himself over the line to set up a grand stand finish with the Saints just a point behind. Shane Geraghty missed the resulting conversion however and the visitors snatched Northampton’s 100% home record away from them in the process 27-28. Despite the loss, Northampton remain in the box seat for second place and the all important home semi-final which is likely to be against Saracens.
At the other end of the table, Newcastle Falcons secured their Premiership survival on Friday after an exciting last gasp win over Sale Sharks at Edgeley Park. Jimmy Gopperth was the hero of the hour with a late penalty that won the game for the Falcons in the dying minutes. Gopperth also scored the first try of the match after 27 minutes when he broke through, evaded some weak tackles and dived under the posts. Marika Vakacegu crossed for Sale before half time but it was the Falcons that were in control going into half time. Sale launched a comeback though and through Charlie Hodgson’s boot they found themselves level at 22-22. Mickey Young then put the visitors back in front before Kristian Ormsby put Sale in front for the first time. Hodgson missed the conversion before Gopperth took centre stage to land his late penalty.
Then at Headingley on Sunday, the ‘million pound’ game took place between Leeds and Worcester where a Leeds win condemned the Warriors to life in the Championship next season.
Leeds started the more controlled and some serious indiscipline from Worcester helped them take a 12-0 lead through four Cieron Thomas penalties. Willie Walker did get the visitors on the scoreboard before half time though with a penalty of his own.
The Warriors played exactly as their name suggests after the break and they were soon rewarded when Alex Grove crossed the line for a converted try. Worcester pushed and pushed but replacement fly-half Matthew Jones had a late drop goal charged down by the on-rushing Leeds defence which sparked wild celebrations around the ground as Leeds survived but Worcester were sadly relegated.
There has been some debate over whether the Guinness Premiership should be expanded and then closed off with no promotion and relegation from the Championship, but this league is one of the most competitive in the world, and it should remain as it is in my view.
By Andrew Daniel