In recent years Northampton had progressed from Leicester’s ‘noisy neighbours’ to the dominant force of the Midlands, but they were brought crashing down to the earth by a Toby Flood-inspired Tigers outfit, who dished out a 35-21 demolition at Franklin’s Gardens. Remarkably, Northampton hadn’t lost in the league at home since September and Leicester hadn’t triumphed at the Gardens for six years. In truth though, a Tigers win rarely looked in doubt, and with Flood recapturing the form that characterised his early England displays, Leicester look a good bet to secure a home semi-final in the play-offs. For their part, Northampton’s performances have been patchy of late, and they certainly haven’t been helped by the losses of Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark. They now face a struggle to grab the final play-off spot, after Exeter moved into fourth spot with a victory over Worcester. The two sides meet at Sandy Park on Sunday, with Jim Mallinder’s knowing anything less than a victory will hand fourth spot to Exeter.
When Exeter were promoted to the Aviva Premiership in 2010, few gave them hope of lasting longer than a season in the topflight. Instead, after a respectable eighth-place finish last year, Rob Baxter’s side have improved immeasurably and now sit just one win away from a play-off berth. Their last minute 31-26 victory at Worcester guaranteed Heineken Cup rugby for the first time in the club’s history, and a home victory over Northampton on Sunday will guarantee them a spot in the Premiership play-offs. It’s easy to extol the virtues of Baxter’s side. They are organised, passionate and hugely committed – they are not a team built on big names, but rather reliant upon a collective spirit arguably unrivalled among their peers. Increasingly more Exeter academy players are receiving national recognition, so one suspects the Chiefs may be around at the top for a while to come.
With each week that goes by it becomes increasingly difficult to predict who will finish at the foot of the Premiership table. The battle has long since dwindled down to two teams, Wasps and Newcastle, and Gary Gold’s Falcons continue to defy the odds to remain within reach of Dai Young’s Wasps. Their 29-20 victory over Gloucester at Kingsholm was impressive in the assured manner the Falcons went about their task, and they are now within one win of leapfrogging Wasps into safety. It is a wonder they have only begun to start playing this rugby recently, with two losses in their last six placing them above many other teams in the form table, not least their opponents on Saturday. They now face Saracens on Friday, who themselves are seeking to ensure a home semi-final, but after Charlie Hodgson only narrowly led his side to victory over London Irish, one feels only a foolish man would bet against Newcastle right now.
Saturday’s 20-29 defeat to bottom club Newcastle was Gloucester’s fourth defeat in succession and leaves their hopes of qualifying for the Heineken Cup hanging by the thinnest of threads. Defeat in their next game against Sale could extinguish all hopes completely, and the team, along with new arrivals Ben Morgan, Billy Twelvetrees and New Zealand scrum-half Jimmy Cowan, may be forced to make do with the Amlin Challenge Cup. It seems to be a familiar tale for Gloucester, a team full of unbridled potential struggling to fully embrace its qualities. Rumours linking Bryan Redpath with the vacant director of rugby post at Sale may have been an unwelcome distraction, and the latest whispers to come out of Kingsholm suggest all is not well with Redpath and the owners. The close season will clearly be one of transition for Gloucester, who seem set to lose Mike Tindall along with current captain Luke Narraway.
Many have long debated the reasons for the turgid rugby that has blighted the Premiership in recent years, with arguments varying between the looming threat of relegation and the poor weather. But on Friday evening, on a clear, dry night at Edgeley Park, Sale and Bath, two sides without any threat of relegation, transpired to play out a thoroughly uninspiring game of rugby. Sale eventually triumphed 16-9, though the most exciting part of the match was when a jape from a be-frocked intruder was certainly not appreciated by Bath centre Olly Barkley, who proceeded to unceremoniously launch the man into the turf. Perhaps a future as a ground steward could be on the cards when his playing career is over. As for the pitch invader, he probably won’t be doing that again anytime soon.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly