EXETER, ENGLAND – Chaos continues to reign in England. After fifteen rounds, only two points separated the third through sixth place teams. Astonishingly, things only got more compressed after this weekend. Now, five teams sit on 47 or 48 points, ranging from Bath in second to Leicester in sixth. Everything is set for a breathtaking finish to the season.
Northampton v. Harlequins
Harlequins have endured a difficult season, dropping some eminently winnable matches. Northampton, on the other hand, has rampaged through the league. With Quins’ England talismans missing, and Northampton playing at their home fortress, it seemed like the Friday night game was a mismatch. Instead, a sloppy affair ended as a tense 17-13 victory for the league leaders. Conor O’Shea’s side missed yet another opportunity, and now will likely miss out on European competition next season. The match was scoreless for 26 minutes, before Nick Evans broke the stalemate with a penalty. Samu Manoa responded almost immediately with a try, which was duly converted by Stephen Myler. The match went into halftime delicately poised at 7-6. After the break, fullback James Wilson continued his breakout season by scoring a well-taken try, putting Saints on top 12-6. Tom Wood ended the contest with a 66th minute try in the flanker’s return to action. However, Marland Yarde had the last word with a scintillating individual effort in the last play of the match. Yarde’s try allowed Quins to collect yet another losing bonus point, but they sit in ninth place, eight points behind a European spot. Northampton’s victory took them twelve points clear at the top of the table following Bath’s loss to Exeter.
Bath v. Exeter
Bath entered the afternoon with a seemingly sure grip on second place. However, Exeter upset the established order, stifling Bath’s offense in an impressive 16-6 home win. The Chiefs have hung around the playoff race all season, buoyed by surprise contributors like Thomas Waldrom. Both teams were impeccable from the kicking tee, but a 72nd minute try from scrum-half Will Chudley proved the difference between the teams. Bath went into the half with a slim 6-3 lead, but they were unable to penetrate Exeter’s solid defensive line in the second period. After a number of careless penalties in the first half, Exeter tightened up and began to control the flow of the match. They did gamble when afforded the opportunity to go for goal, deciding to kick for the corners three times. Though these decisions did not play in the Chiefs’ favor, they secured their first league victory in ten attempts against Bath.
Leicester v. Sale
Billed as an eight point clash between two competitors for the playoff positions, Leicester managed to end their astonishing try-scoring dry spell prevail, 28-8 against Sale. The Tigers had gone since January 4th without crossing the whitewash, a period of almost five hours in match time. Their breakthrough finally came in the thirteenth minute courtesy of flanker Laurence Pearce. Seremaia Bai also touched down for Leicester, along with a penalty try awarded in the thirty third minute. After dominating the scrum against London Irish last weekend, Leicester duplicated the feat, setting a platform to follow in the playoff chase ahead. This match was always going to be a tough ask for Steve Diamond’s team, but he was not pleased with Sale’s ill-discipline, which saw two yellow cards in addition to the penalty try. Sale now sit on 43 points, four behind the Tigers and the rest of the playoff pack.
Wasps v. Gloucester
Wasps played the most entertaining match of the weekend, pleasing their new Coventry fans in an action-packed 32-21 victory against Gloucester. Wasps have now won home matches against Harlequins, London Irish, and Sale since moving to Coventry, but they appeared to be in trouble by the 25th minute. Down 10-0, they blitzed Gloucester with three tries before the end of the half to end a frantic forty minutes ahead 17-13. Flanker Thomas Young came out the blocks racing in the second period, scoring in the first minute to put some distance between the teams. Andy Goode was not his usual rock-solid self, missing three conversions on the afternoon. Gloucester crept back within 3 points courtesy of a Henry Purdy try in the 59th minute, but they were unable to get any closer.
London Welsh v. London Irish
In a match-up between Exiles, the Irish embarrassed the Welsh, 50-12. The Welsh are partially responsible for calls within the Premiership to “ring-in” the league, which would bar promotion and relegation after the 2016 season and expand the league to the original 14 founding teams. Based on the Welsh’s increasingly feeble displays, it is hard to formulate an argument against the proposal. Traditionalists may point to a structure which served Exeter well, but the presence of teams like London Welsh are not doing the league any favors. It’s a thorny issue, but collecting one losing bonus point from sixteen matches has a tendency to diminish opposition.
Saracens v. Newcastle
Newcastle continued their hugely impressive run of form, playing Saracens closely in a valiant 22-17 defeat. Since the turn of the year, the Falcons have been playing quality rugby based around sound fundamentals. The team has clearly identified its strengths and weaknesses, and build solid game-plans around those areas. While few would confuse Newcastle’s brand with the most entertaining teams on offer, they have been playing close, compelling matches against teams that far outstrip them in pure talent. The match was not settled until the final whistle, and only a 77th minute penalty by replacement Ben Spencer gave Saracens any semblance of last-minute security.
As the table currently stands, Saracens are in second with 48 points, followed by Exeter in third and Wasps in fourth (both also have 48 points). Bath and Leicester are fifth and sixth with 47 points. The Premiership may have to go far down to point differential to separate the sides, making every match and margin significant.