Although Harlequins were sitting pretty at the top of the Aviva Premiership heading into the Wembley clash against Saracens, many doubted their ability to shake off the looming threat of both Saracens and Leicester. Conor O’Shea’s side had won just once in their previous three matches but against Saracens, they were more than worthy winners. Outscoring their opponents by three tries to one, the Quins pack dominated around the fringes and attacked with width to good effect. The talent in the side is clear, and the tight five really laid down a marker against fearsome Sarries opposition. Nick Evans performance before withdrawing through injury at half-time will be a minor worry for O’Shea, whose team produced a brilliant, desperate scramble defence to see out the final minutes with just 13 men and secure a 24-19 victory. Write off Harlequins at your peril.
It was becoming clear last week that Exeter were fast becoming a strong contender for the playoffs, and their victory over London Irish, combined with scores elsewhere, has left them in a two-horse race for fourth spot with Northampton. Ignacio Mieres was uncharacteristically wasteful with his kicking and Rob Baxter’s men had to count on their ever-reliable pack to seal a 18-11 victory. Surprisingly it meant they had registered back-to-back victories at Sandy Park for the first time since September, but their good away form has helped them rise up the table. If they can sneak past Northampton into fourth spot it’s unlikely another away match will be complained about too much in Devon.
With captain Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark just beginning lengthy bans, Northampton’s push towards the play-offs looked like it might be running out of steam. A trip to The Rec to face Bath is never easy but this match was perhaps well-timed, handing Jim Mallinder’s side a perfect opportunity to regain some confidence against one of the league’s out-of-form teams. It was a classic, powerful performance from Northampton, beginning with a penalty try before the boot of Ryan Lamb and a try from hooker Andy Long helped them to a comfortable 26-6 win. Ben Foden has spoken of the threat posed by Exeter and it’s clear that the Saints will give the Chiefs the respect they deserve in the run-in. A clash between the two sides at Sandy Park in three works could prove decisive. Ian McGeechan’s Bath meanwhile continue to search for form.
Newcastle’s Friday night victory over Sale moved the Falcons to within one win of catching Wasps, meaning this game became crucial for Dai Young’s youthful side. Wasps began well before the game swung in Gloucester’s favour with minutes left. With first-choice kicker Nick Robinson struggling for fluidity with the boot, it looked like Wasps may have to settle for a losing bonus point. As the game wore on full-back Hugo Southwell attempted a drop-goal, but with one final chance from half-way, 19-year-old centre Elliot Daly, with his very first kick of the game, stepped up to nonchalantly bisect the posts as if an experienced international sealing a comfortable win. Many are already aware of Daly’s burgeoning talent but his reputation as a kicker is quickly building. Coach Dai Young revealed that Daly wants to be first choice kicker at Wasps, though it seems to aggravate a niggling knee injury which already requires two days off training each week. If he can continue kicking the occasional penalty from half-way though, Young may be all too pleased to give him a few more days off.
Richard Cockerill’s side are very much looking like a Tigers side of old at the moment. Frequently they would time their form with the end of season run-in, ensuring they were at their peak for the play-offs. This season seems to be no different. The return of the likes of internationals Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi and Dan Cole has clearly added renewed enthusiasm to the side, with Croft in particularly good try-scoring form of late. They were helped in this game by an ex-Tiger, Worcester fly-half Andy Goode, whose two yellow cards were both careless and costly. The Tigers now lie level on points with Saracens but face difficult trips to Harlequins and Northampton in the next two weeks. Their aim is a home play-off, whether they get this is another matter.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly