Aviva Premiership wrap: Exeter do the double over Harlequins
Aviva Premiership wrap: Exeter shocked the champions Harlequins at home as the Six Nations took a break. James Thompson reports
Exeter win at Quins
Exeter Chiefs pulled off the result of the weekend with a spirited comeback to beat champions Harlequins at the Stoop 27-16. It means they have done the double over the Quins with home and away victories this season and have kept their hopes of a Heineken Cup spot next season alive. Quins winger Ugo Monye opened the scoring with a well-worked try, but the Chiefs fly-half Gareth Steenson kept them in touch and scored 17 points in all. An opportunistic score from full-back Luke Arscott settled the game after he collected a lazy Ben Botica kick and ran through a massive gap in the Quins defence. The victory further underlined the improvements Exeter have made in the past few years as they proved how open the Aviva Premiership is with a thoroughly deserved win. They currently sit eighth but remain in contention for the Heineken Cup slots next year. Along with Bath, Wasps, Northampton and Gloucester, Exeter even have an outside shot of the top four although that may be beyond them but they can take great confidence from this victory this weekend.
Biggs takes the headlines
Bath and Gloucester played out a pulsating West Country derby at the Rec on Friday night with the home side edging out their local rivals. Bath wing Tom Biggs took the headlines with an eye-catching second-half try, to further underline his attacking credentials. With England winger Chris Ashton coming under increasing scrutiny for his below-par performances and with England’s head coach Stuart Lancaster said to be considering his options, Biggs is a man in great form. He was denied a try in the first half by an illegal tackle from Charlie Sharples, which resulted in a penalty try, but he took his score in the second half wonderfully. After good work from Nick Abendanon and Kyle Eastmond, Biggs received the ball and beat two men as he raced over. He’s scored six tries so far this season and his powerful running ensures his team stay on the front foot. England face Italy next and any team they put out should have too much for the Italians so giving Biggs a chance may not be as much of a risk as it appears. Ashton hasn’t looked as imperious as he used to be and with his tackling coming under increasing scrutiny, he may benefit from a spell on the sidelines to ensure he is fully fired up against Wales in what could be a championship decider.
The relegation scrap continues
With five games to go until the end of the regular season, the battle to avoid the drop is more intense than ever. With Worcester gaining an impressive victory over high-flying Wasps, they appear to have eased their relegation concerns leaving London Irish, London Welsh and Sale to scrap it out. Sale currently sit bottom and were hammered 48-10 at Welford Road by Leicester Tigers to leave them three points off Welsh and five points off Irish. Welsh lost 35-14 to new league leaders Saracens, while Irish were thrashed 40-14 at Northampton. With Irish still having to face both Sale and Welsh at home, they will fancy their chances of staying up as their fate remains firmly in their control. Based on all three sides’s current form, if Irish can win one of those fixtures then they should have enough to stay up but if Sale can transfer their LV=Cup form into the league then they still have a fantastic chance of beating the drop. As for London Welsh, they may be deducted points due to the fielding of a non-registered player Tyson Keats, which could relegate them without any games needing to be played. Keats has played the majority of games this season so his involvement is substantial and with the RFU adopting a tough stance on the issue the outcome on 5 March could be hugely influential to all three club’s futures next season.
Internationals make a difference
Domestic rugby, unlike football, doesn’t take a break for internationals – squads must simply cater for the absence of their best players whilst they are on international duty. To offset this, the majority of rugby played on international weekends is the LV=Cup. It gives fans a chance to watch the Six Nations or Autumn Tests and ensures they don’t miss out on elite rugby. With the greatest respect to the LV=Cup, it is very much treated like a second-string competition by the top teams, who are happy to let their youngsters and squad players get a run out. However, every so often the international break affects Premiership rugby as the players are retained by training camps despite there being no weekend international fixture. Some players do get released to keep them match fit or they are simply not needed and this undoubtedly creates an imbalance for some teams. Northampton beat London Irish 40-14 and benefited from the return of Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley. While Harlequins were missing Danny Care, Joe Marler, Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw, players who would definitely have made a difference against Exeter. Of course all teams have to put up with this situation but, especially in the play-off places where it is so close, a surprise loss can damage a team’s chances of reaching the final. The RFU should ensure that its elite domestic competition features all of its best players otherwise clubs will simply look for foreign talent who are always available instead, hampering the national team in the long run.