We started the weekend slightly in the dark regarding various elements of the 2015/16 Premiership puzzle and now, six matches on, the pieces are starting to fit into place.
At Allianz Park Saracens booked their home Premiership semi-final, London Irish’s loss confirmed their relegation and as a result the Newcastle Falcons secured Premiership survival. Now, with one round left, the focus is on which side will secure the second home semi-final and which will others will ensure that they gain Champions Cup rugby next season.
Round 21 started at the AJ Bell Stadium where the Sale Sharks were endeavouring to complete a full season unbeaten on home soil. Alas Gloucester turned up just at the wrong time and backed up their physical Round 20 performance against Exeter Chiefs. It’s no wonder that Gloucester Rugby frustrate themselves, their fans and their management because when they are ‘on it’ they look like a well structured and organised Premiership team. On his first start in the fly-half jersey for three years Greig Laidlaw excelled, he fitted in seamlessly and controlled the game with distinction. The match was won by a decisive penalty that Laidlaw nailed, one that Effion Lewis Roberts will replay over and over again in his mind, but in all honesty Sale shouldn’t have put themselves in that position. Full Time Sale Sharks 11 Gloucester Rugby 12
On Saturday afternoon Leicester Tigers booked their place in the Aviva Premiership play-offs for a record twelfth season in a row. Most certainly it was a game of two halves with plenty of points and tries in the opening one and less excitement in the second, largely due to the inclement weather conditions that arrived. Worcester Warriors’ performance impressed their Director of Rugby and was a far cry from their Round 20 effort that he was incensed by. Bryce Heem and Cooper Vuna remain deadly on the wings but the finish of the day belonged to Telusa Veianu in the right-hand corner of Welford Road. With a playoff spot secured Aaron Mauger has said that they’ll now ‘take stock’ of their squad to ensure that players aren’t too emotionally or physically drained but a victory at The Rec would set them on the right platform for the business end of proceedings. Full Time Leicester Tigers 31 Worcester Warriors 17
Northampton Saints kept their Top 6 hopes firmly alive with a hard-fought victory over Bath Rugby at Franklin’s Gardens. Bath took a healthy 14-0 lead courtesy of Jeff Williams’ superb finishing and defensively they were rock solid for the opening-half. Northampton dominated the territory and possession but it wasn’t until Chris Cook went into the bin that their points started to arrive. Cook’s sin binning was his third in seven games and Bath’s 19th of the season and it left the space for Teimana Harrison to brilliantly finish a score out wide. Indeed the back-row forward’s day was impressive and Eddie Jones will have taken note sitting in the stands. Francois Louw was heroic for the visitors, the captain led by example making 5 of their 10 turnovers singlehandedly and had the bounce of the ball gone Jeff Williams’ way Bath may have gained their first win at the Gardens since 2004. It didn’t and Mikey Haywood capped a great performance of his own with the decisive score that keeps the Northampton Saints in the Champions Cup running while Bath are confirmed to finish the year in ninth. Full Time Northampton Saints 15 Bath Rugby 14
It was an emotional day at the Madejski Stadium where Harlequins‘ victory condemned London Irish to Championship Rugby next season. It will be of little consolation to the Exiles that their performance was one of their best of the season and was one that was filled with guts and character. Conor O’Shea’s side romped to an early 19-3 lead thanks to a brace from Charlie Walker but the Exiles determinedly clawed it back and he’d a 25-22 lead after 65-minutes. In the end Harlequins’ productivity and confidence in open play outdid their opponents and Irish suffered from the same issue that has plagued them all year; not being able to close out the big moments. Individual handling errors cost them positive opportunities and a desolate Tom Coventry cited a lack of ‘rugby maturity’ as a key contributor to their downfall. Full Time London Irish 25 Harlequins 32
At Sandy Park Exeter and Wasps were embroiled in a physical and enthralling match. After forty minutes only Olly Woodburn’s sublime finish, that combined immense power and pace, separated the two. Wasps were nullifying Exeter’s driving maul but it was the hosts that had enjoyed the lions share of the territory and possession. In the second-half Rob Baxter’s side made that count as Phil Dollman charged through a gap and completed his score with an odd looking attempt at an ‘Ash Splash’ but that was immaterial it was the five-points that counted. As the match wore on Exeter looked every inch the title contender as they shut Wasps down and didn’t allow Dai Young’ side any space to work with. Exeter took advantage of the energy that Wasps’ Champions Cup semi-final sucked out of them and were ruthless. Dave Ewers had an almighty day the office, he led the physicality in defence and carried with such purpose that he is another that Eddie Jones must be considering for the tour to Australia. Exeter’s victory pushes them above Wasps but they’ve got the task of facing Harlequins next weekend to secure a home semi-final while Wasps have an easier ride hosting relegated London Irish. Full Time Exeter Chiefs 24 Wasps 3
The final game of the weekend was at Allianz Park where the home side ensured that Jacques Burger’s final match as a professional rugby player was a victorious one. This week Saracens had trained little due to a team bonding trip to Dubrovnik and it took them forty minutes or so to find their flow again. In contrast the Newcastle Falcons were firing on all cylinders from the word go and Marcus’ Watson’s brace of tries were delightful to enjoy. Saracens’ driving maul proved to be a fruitful second-half weapon and like so many other matches this weekend one man was the catalyst to the come back and that was Jackson Wray. Saracens’ victory books their home semi-final and provides a superb opportunity for them to rest as many players as they want to against Worcester with an eye on their Champions Cup final 7 days later. For the Falcons their survival is secured but they’ll want to finish in style on home soil against Steve Diamond’s Sale Sharks. Full Time Saracens 23 Newcastle Falcons 14
By Emma Thurston
To see more from Emma, visit Out On The Full