Two matches to go and the Premiership play-offs are still in the balance. The two teams who are seemingly in the best form, Leicester and Harlequins both notched up important victories at the weekend to damage the hopes of two other rivals: Sale and Bath.
The big story of the weekend is that Bristol are now officially relegated. In a high-scoring contest against London Irish, Bristol’s slim hopes ebbed away as the game wore on and the better side took control, Irish winning it 38-21. The positives for Bristol’s season were victories against Northampton and Worcester, the try-scoring of David Lemi and their better form in the past few weeks.
London Irish now lie in 3rd and with a visit to Northampton and a home tie against Worcester to come, they will be confident of staying in play-off contention.
Worcester came out on top against Saracens to hamper the Londoners’ chances of a route into next season’s Heineken Cup. Worcester were out to restore pride and secure their Premiership status following their defeat to Bristol and in front of their home crowd they fronted up to a lacklustre Saracens outfit to take it 22-8.
Northampton played with a festival spirit and without a care to further damage Gloucester’s premiership hopes, defeating them 40-22. Bruce Reihana stole the show with some stunning breaks to carve through the Gloucester defence as if it wasn’t there. The cherry and whites will still be hopeful of two victories in their final two fixtures against Worcester and Wasps but with this kind of form they are by no means guaranteed.
In a clinical display of defensive rigour and astute attacking, Harlequins conquered Bath at the Rec and denied them even a losing bonus point, taking it 19-3. On a few occasions Bath battered the Quins line so hard that it looked more difficult not to score but time and again the Quins defence held firm, with one particularly impressive tackle from Chris Malone.
Despite the win Quins lost the top position in the league, but they opened up a five point gap on 5th place Gloucester to cement the belief that they’ll be there when the regular season ends.
In the most exciting match of the weekend, Leicester, playing with 14 men for ¾ of the match, managed a bonus point victory over a rejuvenated Sale, 37-31. Julian White did his best Muhammed Ali impression to knock down Andy Sheridan (albeit with a bit of provocation) and receive his marching orders which left Leicester a man down but seemingly galvanised to complete the victory.
This match embodied everything that is right with Northern Hemisphere rugby at the moment, both sides putting their heart and souls into attack and defence. Sale were unlucky to come away from the game with just a losing bonus point, but will regroup and refocus for next season.
By contrast, the match between Wasps and Newcastle on Sunday was a completely damp squib – both sides forgetting how to string more than a few phases together. A couple of flashes of Cipriani brilliance didn’t disguise the fact that it was a game poorly managed by both he and his opposite man, Tom May. Wasps took the spoils, 12-6, but will need to improve further in their next two matches if they want to give Josh Lewsey the send-off he deserves.
We take another break from Premiership rugby to make way for the Heineken Cup quarter finals this weekend. There will definitely be one English club represented in the semis as Leicester take on Bath on Saturday. I’ve got a sneaking feeling Bath might win that one, even away from home…
By Jon Hobbs