A break in the Six Nations allowed the Gallagher Premiership to briefly steal the limelight as the season edges towards its conclusion. The congested nature of the middle of the table has led to one of the most intriguing playoff battles in years and meant all five games had plenty riding on them. The weekend also saw the league’s top two do battle, with Sale hosting Saracens, a potential dress rehearsal for May’s final. Steve Borthwick released several England players, allowing them to get some minutes in the tank, the most high-profile being Marcus Smith, who certainly gave his coach some food for thought.
Bristol 62 v 8 Northampton Saints
Bristol kicked off the weekend by thumping Northampton, as the crowd at Ashton Gate was treated to a try-fest. It was a record Premiership victory for Bristol, scoring nine tries and keeping their playoff hopes alive. Bristol had the bonus point sewn up by halftime, the pick of the tries being Harry Randall’s, created by some outrageous footwork and deft kicking skills from Charlies Piutau. Piutau has had a few injury troubles this season, but he demonstrated the full range of his talents on Friday, causing chaos every time he touched the ball.
Bristol showed no mercy in the second half, scoring a further five tries, including one for Fitz Harding, who had another outstanding game, relentlessly busy on both sides of the ball. Northampton’s sole try came through George Hendy after some good work from one of their few bright spots, Tom Collins. It was a chastening night for a severely depleted Saints side, whose defensive woes continue. The Saints actually started well but failed to make their early dominance pay against a resolute Bristol defence. Northampton remain in the playoff spots, while Bristol stay in ninth but narrow the gap on their fellow contenders.
Leicester Tigers 48 v 27 Bath
Leicester moved into the playoff spots with a victory over Bath at Welford Road. Bath had the better of the earlier exchanges, taking the lead through Matt Gallagher’s excellent tiptoeing finish. However, Leicester swiftly took the lead thanks to tries from the impressive Harry Potter and Handre Pollard. Bath struggled to cope with Leicester’s power and faced a spell with thirteen men after repeated infringements saw Tom Dunn and Josh McNally sin-binned. Leicester took advantage, with hooker Juan Montoya walking in for their third try. Ben Spencer’s excellent solo try briefly hauled Bath back into it, but Hanro Liebenberg’s score gave the Tigers a bonus point and a large cushion heading into halftime.
McNally’s try after the restart gave Bath a glimmer of hope, but injuries to flankers Sam Underhill and Alfie Barbeary soon hampered them. Barbeary’s injury was a particularly savage blow, the talented youngster managing just ten minutes on his Bath debut, continuing his wretched luck with injury. Montoya’s second try clinched the game for Leicester, going over in the corner after a typically surging break from Mike Brown. Harry Wells added some gloss with a fortunate try before Fergus Lee Warner barged over to give Bath a bonus point. Despite picking up a point, Bath remain rooted to the bottom of the table.Embed from Getty Images
Harlequins 40 v 5 Exeter Chiefs
After all the pre-game fireworks and music, Harlequins provided the Twickenham crowd with the ultimate entertainment, sweeping aside Exeter. Quins scored six tries, arresting their Premiership slump and demonstrating the form that made them champions in 2021. Exeter had plenty of early ball, but they failed to take advantage of Josh Bassett’s sin-binning period, Quins repelling them several times near their own line. Conversely, Quins ruthlessly exposed Harvey Skinner’s spell in the bin, running in three tries and sealing the bonus point by halftime. Exeter did get on the board in the second half thanks to Jack Innard’s try, but Quins scored two more of their own, sending a joyous Twickenham crowd home happy.
One of the key talking points ahead of the game was the inclusion of Marcus Smith in the Harlequins’ side. Smith’s release from the England camp raised several eyebrows, with the return of George Ford posing questions about his place in the squad. Borthwick’s justification is that he wanted Smith to gain some “match sharpness”, and he vindicated his decision, producing a man-of-the-match display. Smith had a hand in several of Quins’s tries, including a delightful chip which led to Cadan Murley’s score. Danny Care also impressed as he moved into second place in the Premiership’s all-time appearance list, setting up Sam Riley’s try with an outrageous offload out the back of the hand. But it was the breakdown where Exeter were really given a beating, Quins’ back-row producing an excellent performance.
Newcastle Falcons 19 v 34 London Irish
London Irish boosted their playoff hopes with a bonus point victory over Newcastle at Kingston Park. Irish dominated the game from the off and scored their first try within three minutes, Josh Basham going over after some neat handling. After half an hour, Irish had raced into an imposing 19-0 lead thanks to tries from England hopeful Tom Pearson and Italian prop Danilo Fischetti. The Falcons hit back hard, tries from Matthew Dalton and Jamie Blamire narrowing the deficit, and Karl Fearns’s try shortly after halftime drew them level. However, Irish wrestled back control, Matt Cornish scoring the bonus point try after a slick move from a line out. Ollie Hassell-Collins, who cut a periphery figure in England’s opening two Six Nations matches, gave a sharp reminder of his finishing prowess, scoring the Exiles’ fifth try and sealing the victory.
Sale Sharks 35 v 24 Saracens
The final game of the round pitted first versus second at the AJ Bell Stadium. Sale were seeking to bounce back from consecutive defeats, but in the early stages, Saracens demonstrated why they are the league leaders. After a cagey opening featuring a lot of kicking, the visitors raced into a 19-0 lead thanks to tries from Alex Lewington and Theo Dan. Sale initially seemed reluctant to play, but they soon sparked into action, the hugely impressive Joe Carpenter scoring their first try after Sale’s drive sucked in the Saracens defence. Tom O’Flaherty’s break and potentially dubious pass set up Sale’s second score, with Sam James going over to narrow the deficit to five points.Embed from Getty Images
O’Flaherty almost gave Sale the lead after the restart with a superb break, only denied by an excellent cover tackle by Alex Lozowski. But Sale soon edged in front, Carpenter going over for his second try, and the Sharks soon wrapped up the bonus point, Rob Du Preez’s beautifully weighted kick pass allowing Jono Ross to score. The game wasn’t done, though, and Saracens clawed themselves back into it through their maul, replacement Kapeli Pifeleti’s score moving them within four points. However, their comeback hopes were dented minutes later when substitute prop Robin Hislop was sent-off for catching Carpenter’s head with his shoulder. Sale rode a brief spell of pressure before adding a try at the death, Jean-Luc Du Preez barging his way over. Sale’s try at the end denied Saracens a losing bonus point, narrowing the gap at the top to six points.