Aviva Premiership: Leicester heap pressure on Harlequins
Tom James takes a look at an action-packed weekend in the Aviva Premiership, including Leicester's win at Harlequins
Harlequins must tighten up to ensure a home semi-final
Though Leicester entered the match as slight favourites, when Harlequins led 26-13 as half-time approached they were easily in the ascendency and favourites for the win. While Ugo Monye’s interception try was slightly fortuitous, they were good value for their early lead. A converted Steve Mafi try and two Toby Flood penalties levelled proceedings, though Quins led again following George Lowe’s converted try. But an illegal tackle on Leicester’s Ben Youngs saw the Harlequins centre sin-binned and the visitors duly took advantage to peg Harlequins back before building an unassailable ten-point lead. It was the sort of comeback to which spectators have grown to expect from Leicester – and one which will worry Harlequins fans with the play-offs looming. Conor O’Shea’s side still sit on top of the table, but now must defeat Sale at Edgeley Park or face being usurped by both Leicester and Saracens, should they see off Bath and Exeter respectively. A third place finish wouldn’t be disastrous, but it would mean an away semi-final – especially problematic when you consider the loss to Leicester was Harlequins’ first defeat at the Stoop all season.
Exeter set to narrowly miss play-offs
Despite clinching Heineken Cup rugby last week, Exeter will have been disappointed they could not beat Northampton at Sandy Park and effectively guarantee a play-off spot. Instead, the Saints now lie one point ahead of the Chiefs with a far superior points difference. Exeter now face the tricky task of defeating Saracens at Vicarage Road and hoping Northampton slip up against Worcester at home. This isn’t totally implausible, but Rob Baxter’s side may start turning their attention to next season. To their credit, this is something they are clearly doing. The announcement of the signing of Australian international Dean Mumm represents the fourth new arrival in Devon but, more importantly, is a real statement of intent. The lock, who is also comfortable playing on the flank, captained the Wallabies in 2009 and will bring both experience and dynamism to an already powerful pack. The Chiefs have improved each season they’ve been in the Premiership and the signs are that this trend will continue.
Saracens must improve with play-offs fast approaching
Saracens haven’t so much faltered as just drifted through their final few matches of the season. The 45-9 victory over Sale in March proved to be a false dawn of attacking rugby for the north London side and this weekend’s tepid 9-3 victory over Newcastle was as flat as Gavin Henson’s international future. It makes little sense considering they have the potent attacking weapons of Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell in their backline, though perhaps it serves to show the sort of low-risk rugby which has drawn much criticism from fans over the last few seasons. Saracens’ hopes of finishing top are still very much alive, though they must improve on their performance immeasurably if they are to first see off Exeter and then take on Leicester and co in the play-offs. They have the talent at their disposal but one feels their current under-par performances would see them fall very short against the Premiership’s better sides.
The only way is up for Sale
Sale’s victory over Gloucester saw them consolidate sixth spot and guarantee that Heineken Cup rugby will head to Manchester next year. It’s not long ago that Kingsholm was a fortress for the Cherry & Whites, without a manager after Bryan Redpath’s resignation, but the defeat to Sale was their third home loss in a row – the other two coming against Newcastle and Exeter. It’s also less than a year since Gloucester dispatched Sale 68-17 in their final game of the 2010/11 season at Kingsholm – a point not missed by Sale owner Steve Diamond. Diamond’s passion and vision for the club has clearly rubbed off on his players, with new arrival Danny Cipriani also pointing to Diamond as an overriding factor when deciding to join. It’s been many years since Sale were annual play-off contenders, and their academy still pales in comparison to the likes of Gloucester’s, but a strong nucleus of experience and youth has been built at Edgeley Park and Heineken Cup rugby next season is well deserved.
Bath’s Sam Vesty shouldn’t celebrate so early
Capping off a routine victory over Wasps may seem like a lark for Sam Vesty, but for the players at Newcastle, and no doubt his Bath coaches and teammates, a potential last-minute try would have meant a lot more. It is perhaps why, when jogging towards the try-line with left arm aloft, that Wasps wing Tom Varndell’s try-saving tackle will have evoked a rather sickening feeling up north. A try at that point would have given Bath a try bonus point but, more crucially, it would have robbed Wasps of their losing bonus point. Now, with bonus point in hand, Wasps sit four points clear of Newcastle with a superior points difference. Had Vesty simply sprinted to the line, Newcastle would just need to beat Wasps to secure Premiership safety, instead they must now beat Wasps with a try bonus point and hope Wasps fail to gather a losing bonus point. Vesty may expect a greatly reduced number of Newcastle-based Christmas and birthday cards this year.