Aviva Premiership wrap: Saracens extend their lead at the top
Aviva Premiership: Saracens extend their lead at the top of the table after a 28-24 win against Northampton Saints
Saracens extended their lead at the top of the Aviva Premiership with three rounds to go, but the West Country derby between Gloucester and Bath at Kingsholm stole the headlines for all the wrong reasons as the hosts finished the match with 11 men.
On Friday night, Harlequins kept their play-off hopes alive with a 27-15 win over Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium to leapfrog the Salford-based side into fifth place, five points behind Bath, for what was their first win on the road since the start of December.
Influential outside-half Danny Cipriani—restored to the starting XV after sitting out the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final—got the Sharks on their way as he started a well-worked move for Tom Brady to power through.
Quins hit back men with four tries as their England international quartet of Danny Care, Mike Brown, Joe Marler and Chris Robshaw impressed, but it was mercurial outside-half Nick Evans who got the Londoners into the game with a brilliant solo try on 15 minutes.
Care was the orchestrator of Quins’ second try as the England scrum-half led a charge upfield which was eventually stopped five metres out, but Care was on hand to cross as Conor O’Shea’s side went through the phases to give them a 15-5 lead at the break.
Quins penned Sale back in their 22 and after a sustained period of possession winger Smith broke a tackle and went over for the score, giving them a 5-20 lead.
Winger Sam Smith broke a tackle on his way to Quins’ third try five minutes into the second half as the visitors dominated possession.
The Sharks almost responded after more magic from Cipriani with a kick through, but Sam Tuitupou was halted by Quins’ scramble defence.
Robshaw paved the way for Quins’ bonus point try with nine minutes remaining for Maurie Fa’asavalu to go over. With lock Charlie Mathews in the sin-bin in the last few minutes, Sharks capitalised on their numerical advantage with a consolation penalty try.
At Kingsholm on Saturday, Bath edged Gloucester 18-17. It was a far from a classic game, dominated by a flurry from referee Tim Wigglesworth which outnumbered tries scored, but young England outside-half George Ford held his nerve to convert a last-minute penalty for Bath to hang on to fourth place in the table.
In the first half, Bath survived having flanker Carl Fearns sin-binned for illegally ripping the ball and Matt Garvey binned for a high tackle on Gareth Evans as Ford and Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees traded penalty kicks.
Gloucester had replacement prop Sila Puafisi red-carded for a high tackle on Nick Abendanon in the second half and the visitors responded in kind as captain Stuart Hooper went over for the game’s first try, but Ford missed the conversion to give the Cherry and Whites hope.
With the game already reduced to uncontested scrums, Bath had lock Dave Attwood sin-binned for not releasing and Twelvetrees edged his side 12-11 in front with 13 minutes remaining.
Good work from former England centre Mike Tindall allowed his midfield partner Henry Trinder to burst over for a try, but Twelvetrees missed the conversion.
Tindall was then binned for an infringement at the breakdown and replacement hooker Huia Edmonds was then sent to the bin 30 seconds later, leaving Gloucester with 12 men.
And Bath were rewarded for their patience in attack as Wigglesworth awarded a penalty try, but all hell broke loose and Gloucester scrum-half Tavis Knoyle was red carded after landing some punches in his role in the melee.
Worcester Warriors kept alive their slim chances of avoiding relegation as they came back from 21-3 down to lose 38-33 to Exeter Chiefs at Sixways to secure two bonus points.
Full-back Chris Pennell was again one of the Warriors’ stand-out players running in for a try with wing David Lemi going over twice and hooker Agustin Creevy also going over.
But it was the Chiefs’ outside-half Gareth Steenson who made the difference with a try, five conversions and a penalty.
Sam Hill, David Lewis and Jack Yeandle all joined Steenson in going over for tries in the first half, with Yeandle going over for his second try seven minutes after the restart.
At 35-18 down, Creevy and Lemi hit back to bring the Warriors in range, but needed a Ryan Lamb penalty two minutes from time to secure their losing bonus point and a hope of overturning their deficit to the Falcons.
Bonus points were also on the cards at Welford Road as reigning champions Leicester Tigers kept up their late surge for a home semi-final with a 27-15 win over London Wasps.
Fijian wing Niki Goneva capped off signing a new deal with the Tigers to score his 10th Premiership try of the season in the first half, with in-form England centre Manu Tuilagi weighing in with a try in each half.
Flanker Guy Thompson and full-back Tommy Bell went over for Wasps to bring them within seven points in the final 10 minutes which would have been good for a losing bonus point, but replacement Tigers scrum-half David Mele weighed in with the Tigers’ fourth try three minutes from time leaving them three points behind East Midlands rivals Northampton Saints.
On Sunday afternoon, Saracens stretched their lead at the top of the Premiership with a 28-24 win over Saints in what had been dubbed the tie of the round between the league’s front-runners.
Tries from winger David Strettle, flanker Kelly Brown and centre Marcelo Bosch saw the London club take a 28-10 before a late comeback from the Saints after replacement Sarries prop Matt Stevens finished the game in the sin-bin.
Luther Burrell and George North found their way over the line for tries in the final 10 minutes as Saints forced their way back into the game, but Jim Mallinder’s side had to settle for a losing bonus point as the hosts held on for their first win over the East Midlands club this season.
In the final match of the weekend, London Irish wing Andy Fenby scored a hat-trick as Brian Smith’s side cruised to a six-try 40-12 half-time lead over Newcastle Falcons at the Madejski Stadium, which Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards described as one of the worst performances he had seen.
Fergus Mulchrone, Eamonn Sheridan and Gerard Ellis also touched down for the Exiles, with James O’Connor kicking five out of six conversions.
The lowly-placed visitors had the boot of Rory Clegg to thank for the 12 points they were able to accumulate before the break but, after an inevitable rollicking, showed more composure in the second half despite not being able to find a way through Irish who had dropped their intensity.
The defeat leaves the Falcons still in the relegation battle, just seven points ahead of the Warriors with three rounds to go.
Sale Sharks 12-27 Harlequins
Leicester Tigers 27-15 London Wasps
Worcester Warriors 33-38 Exeter Chiefs
Gloucester Rugby 17-18 Bath Rugby
London Irish 40-12 Newcastle Falcons
Saracens 28-24 Northampton Saints