After two weeks of mixed European exploits for the English sides, the Gallagher Premiership returned at the weekend. With the playoff picture heating up, there was plenty to play for.
Bristol Bears 20-36 Sale Sharks
Sale secured their place in the play-offs with an impressive win over Bristol at Ashton Gate, with George Ford contributing 21 points. Sale’s form had stuttered of late, and their win on Friday night was their first victory away from home since October. But it looks like they are peaking at the right time as Bristol struggled to cope with their physicality in slippery conditions. Sale were guided by an impressive performance from Ford, who, after trading penalties with AJ MacGinty early on, slipped back into the pocket to land a drop goal and give Sale a six-point advantage. Sale scored the game’s first try shortly afterwards, Tom Curry feeding his brother Ben, who bumped off Max Lahiff to run in from the edge of the 22. Bristol responded strongly, and after Manu Tuilagi had denied Harry Thacker a score, MacGinty’s beautifully weighted crossfield kick was collected by Siva Naulago, who dived over.
Sale led 19-13 at the break, and the game appeared to be in the balance, but the Sharks quickly took charge after the restart; Jono Ross’s break allowed Jean-Luc du Preez to waltz over unopposed and stretch their advantage. Things got worse for Bristol when Ellis Genge was given a yellow card for a high tackle on Tom Curry after Ford had enhanced Sale’s lead further with a penalty. Bristol survived the ten minutes without Genge well, but Gus Warr’s try put the game beyond doubt, the scrum-half slicing through the Bristol defence after a powerful Sale scrum. A superb finish from winger Gabriel Ibotiye gave the home side a consolation, but their first home defeat since November ends their already doomed play-off hopes. Sale could seal a home semi-final with victory at Gloucester next Saturday.
Gloucester 24-33 Bath
A superb comeback from Bath saw them beat their west country neighbours Gloucester and avenge the 62-0 drubbing they received at Kingsholm last season. Trailing 17-0 at one stage, Bath fought back with five tries to clinch just their second away win of the season. In a typically feverous atmosphere, Gloucester flew out the blocks quicker, some sharp hands from centres Chris Harris and Seb Atkinson allowing Louis Rees-Zammit to feed Stephen Varney for the game’s first try. Gloucester’s second try was equally as slick, despite the wet conditions, and more good handling allowed Santiago Carreras to slide over in the corner. But Bath came back strongly and received a penalty try when Lewis Ludlow was penalised for a high tackle on Max Ojomah as he dived over in the corner. Bath made their man advantage count, flanker Miles Reid burrowing over from close range to reduce the deficit to three points at halftime.
Gloucester started the second half well, Atkinson scoring the third try from Carreras’s neat little pop inside after they had stretched Bath’s defence from side to side. However, it would prove to be Gloucester’s last score of the night as Bath seized the momentum. First, Joe Cokanasiga went over after Gloucester made a mess of dealing with a kick from Ben Spencer, and they then took the lead when Reid powered over from short range for his second try. A try from substitute Sam Underhill sealed a memorable victory, and to rub salt in the wounds, Carreras missed a late penalty that would have given Gloucester a losing bonus point. Defeat continues Gloucester’s dramatic slide; they have gone from play-off contenders to sitting in ninth, just three points above Bath.Embed from Getty Images
Northampton Saints 38-29 Saracens
Northampton moved into fourth place with a bonus point victory over a much-changed Saracens side. After a bruising encounter with La Rochelle, Mark McCall opted to rest most of his internationals, and their task was made even more difficult after Duncan Taylor’s red card in the eighth minute. Saracens had opened the scoring, Rotimi Segun producing a superb tiptoeing finish after collecting Alex Lewington’s grubber kick. But after Taylor’s sending-off, the Saints took full control, Alex Mitchell feeding Alex Moon to crash over before James Ramm’s superb break allowed Sam Matavesi to set up Lewis Ludlam for their second try. Winger Tommy Freeman’s excellent finish gave Northampton a 19-10 lead at halftime that probably would have been greater if it were not for some sloppy handling that repeatedly quelled their attacking momentum.
But some typically scintillating play bolstered their lead after the break, some fast hands from a scrum inside their own half resulting in Fraser Dingwall stepping through the Saracen’s defence and feeding Rory Hutchinson to score. When Fin Smith dotted down in the corner, it appeared things might get out of control, but Saracens refused to lie down, and Manu Vunipola’s superb chip and interplay with Josh Hallet allowed the fly-half to dive over under the posts. Dingwall’s try after Segun’s yellow card made the game safe for the Saints, but again Sarries kept fighting and even scored with thirteen men on the pitch, Alex Goode’s wonderful delayed pass allowing Theo Dan to score. The visitors sealed a deserved bonus point in the last minute, Goode’s pass gifting Segun his second try. Northampton will be hoping Saracens can do them a favour and beat their top-four rivals London Irish on Sunday.
Harlequins 48-20 Newcastle Falcons
Quins kept their slim top-four hopes alive with victory over basement club Newcastle, scoring four tries in the last ten minutes to shrug off the visitors. Newcastle led after half an hour despite the home side’s dominance, Marcus Smith failing to deal with Matias Moroni’s kick-through, allowing Adam Radwan to gratefully sweep up and unselfishly feed Mateo Carreras to score. Brett Connon’s penalty gave the Falcons a ten-point advantage, but Quins finally got over the whitewash, a neat pivot move involving Joe Marler allowing Andre Esterhuisen to walk over. Quins took the lead just before halftime, Josh Bassett picking his way through the traffic before handing the ball off to Louis Lynagh to score on his return to the side.
Connon restored Newcastle’s lead early in the second half with a penalty, but Quins hit back through Bassett, the winger cutting back against the grain to score Quins’ third try. Some sharp hands from Esterhuisen and Lynagh allowed Alex Dombrandt to touch down in the corner shortly after and give Quins a bonus point. But with Marcus Smith’s boot failing him, Freddie Lockwood’s try, created by a scorching break from Carreras, in the sixty-fifth minute, meant the Falcons were trailing by just two points. But Quins swiftly put the game to bed. First, Dombrandt picked a great line off Danny Care to score, and then Dino Lamb smashed his way over after Newcastle fell asleep at a line out. The home side weren’t done, and Joe Marchant went over on his Stoop swansong after receiving Smith’s beautifully judged crossfield kick. Marchant had the honour of attempting to convert replacement Fin Baxter’s last-minute try, but his effort sailed wide. Quins face Bath at Twickenham next week, knowing nothing less than a victory will keep their play-off dreams alive.Embed from Getty Images
Leicester Tigers 62-19 Exeter Chiefs
Chris Ashton became the first person to score 100 Premiership tries as Leicester thrashed Exeter at Welford Road. Ashton, who recently announced his retirement, scored a hat-trick as the Tigers ran in nine tries, ruthlessly exploiting their man advantage after Olly Woodburn was sent off early in the second half. The Tigers roared out the blocks, Handre Pollard’s scything break and neat grubber kick allowing Dan Kelly to open the scoring. Ashton was instrumental in Leicester’s second try, linking with Jack van Poortvliet following a scrum, his neat dink inside allowing van Poortvliet to touch down. Exeter responded strongly, Sam Simmonds going over after a powerful, weaving run. Pollard stretched Leicester’s lead with a penalty after Olly Woodburn had received a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on, but the Chiefs held firm, and after Sean O’Brien intercepted Pollard’s attempted crossfield kick, Stuart Hogg dived over for their second try. Just as Woodburn returned, Rory O’Loughlin was sent to the bin for the same offence, and Leicester capitalised, with Ashton scoring try number ninety-nine after collecting Anthony Watson’s clever kick.
Trailing 22-12 at halftime, Exeter would have felt right in the game, but a contentious second yellow card for Olly Woodburn provided a hammer blow to their chances. Woodburn was penalised for diving on Ashton on the floor as Hogg tackled the winger into touch, the resulting penalty try ensuring Woodburn had to be yellowed. It was harsh on the winger, but referee Karl Dickson’s hands are tied by a law that potentially needs tweaking. Ashton scored try number a hundred shortly after as it became one-way traffic. Matt Scott scored a brace, and George Martin went over, with Ashton completing his hat trick in between. Ben Youngs was deployed off the bench, making his three hundredth appearance for the Tigers, and not even Rus Tuima’s consolation score could dampen the air of celebration. Both Youngs and Ashton’s landmarks are a testament to their quality and longevity, and they will be itching to help Leicester defend their title as the season enters the business end.