Northampton Saints’ good domestic run came to a shuddering halt on Saturday when Leicester Tigers visited Franklin Gardens, securing a comprehensive 36-8 victory. Leicester were simply outstanding with the harder grounds proving a huge difference as the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft and Ed Slater were able to run rampant. The much vaunted Saints pack, that was imperious last weekend against Wasps, found themselves going backwards as Leicester dominated the set piece. Saints captain and hooker Dylan Hartley endured a miserable afternoon as his line-out fell apart, as Geoff Parling and Croft made were constant pests. While Leicester’s forwards were in great form, their backs were brilliant too. In particular, Tuilagi reasserted himself as the must-watch player in the Premiership with some explosive running and two tries. Leicester were able to mix it up with great effect, having two plans of action; negate the strength of the Northampton forwards and stretch their backline with crash ball. Their bench also made a huge difference as well. Any team that can bring on the likes of Thomas Waldrom, Martin Castrogiovanni and Lugovi’I Mulipola will always finish a game strongly, and Leicester were able to do so. It was a huge marker that they put down and all but booked a home semi-final in the play-offs. They also dealt a huge psychological blow to Northampton as this could be a repeat fixture in May but at Welford Road instead, and if they can put in a similar performance, they will be at Twickenham for the final.
London Irish hosted Sale at the Madejski Stadium with both sides looking to increase the gap between themselves and bottom-placed side London Welsh. The lead changed hands several times but eventually the spoils were shared as it finished 33-33. It means Irish are now 10 points clear and Sale have an eight-point cushion with just three games to go. While the game itself was extremely entertaining, it was reflective of why both sides have faced relegation trouble this season. There were countless missed tackles as attack overcame defence on numerous occasions, and while this was exciting for the neutral, it would have frustrated both sets of fans. A draw is probably enough for both sides to remain in the league this year but both will rue it as a missed opportunity as they had chances to win outright. Irish raced into a 14-0 lead but Sale responded magnificently to turn the game around and lead at half-time for the first time this season as they scored three tries to go in 22-20 up. Sale No8 James Gaskell then scored early in the second half to stretch their lead further but despite being 30-20 ahead, the visitors never looked secure and Irish came back to lead 33-30. Nick MacLeod then drew Sale level in the last minute with a penalty and the point along with the four-try bonus point may prove vital come the end of the season.
Harlequins continued their alarming dip in form with a disappointing 17-15 loss to Gloucester at Kingsholm on Friday night. It extended their winless streak at Gloucester’s home ground but more importantly it means they have now lost three Premiership games on the bounce and a home semi-final is now in jeopardy. Despite winning the LV=Cup, they have haven’t kicked on and instead of cementing their play-off slot, they could miss out all together as they find themselves in a three-way battle with Gloucester and Northampton for the remaining two places. Quins play a high tempo game which relies on pace throughout the side as they look to attack from all over the pitch, but with the squad having been involved in three competitions, they may have become tired and jaded. Certainly, some of their intensity has diminished as of late and with their last game of the season against Northampton, they could find their defence of their title ending sooner than they hoped. For Gloucester this win was a great boost as they look to pursue their title dreams and their faith in youngsters such as Freddie Burns and Jonny May looks to be rewarded.
It was a miserable week for London Welsh as they lost two key battles in their fight to stay in the Premiership. On Tuesday, it was announced that their appeal against their five-point deduction for fielding an ineligible player was rejected so they remained rooted to the bottom of the table. They then lost 40-25 to Bath at the Rec on Saturday as their time in the Premiership appears to draw to a close. With the gap between them and Sale now eight points with just three games to go, it appears they are simply left with too much to do. Their time in the Premiership has been nothing short of eventful as they had to appeal just to get into the league after they were initially barred due to tenancy issues with their ground, and as a result, lost time to prepare for the new season. They have battled admirably and if they hadn’t been penalised for playing scrum-half Tyson Keats when he wasn’t registered correctly then this relegation battle would go down to the wire. They can still mathematically turn their fortunes around but must plug the holes in their defence as well as offering more going forward, something they have not been able to do consistently this season.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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