BATH, ENGLAND – The marquee matchup this weekend was supposed to be Bath versus Sale. Bath has been in freefall, losing their last three league matches and falling out of playoff position, while Sale desperately needed a victory to keep themselves in contention. Instead, they played a turgid, error strewn match while the rest of the league shined. Seventeen weeks in, the playoff picture is still totally obscure, but that’s the way we like it. Weekend after weekend, the Premiership proves that it remains one of the most dramatic competitions in the world.
Bath v. Sale
It isn’t Bath’s fault that they are playing with a second-string backline. However, the last month has revealed their tactical fragility without George Ford pulling the strings. Bath’s attacks have been sputtering out before they begin, and without Ford’s pinpoint kicking helping them recover from poor positions, they have suffered immensely. Since the Six Nations started, Bath have scored 12, 6, and 13 points, a far cry from the offensive juggernaut that racked up five try-scoring bonus point victories in the first half of the season. Their match against Sale was an opportunity to stop their freefall, and they succeeded on paper. Bolstered by a strong defensive performance, Bath won 12-3 against a dire Sale outfit. Even returning fly-half Danny Cipriani could not spark the Sharks’ offense into life, and scrums dominated a sloppy contest. Fullback Tom Homer kicked penalties in the 16th, 28th, 55th, and 64th minutes to see Bath home safely. Two rounds ago, the Sharks were one point out of the playoffs. Now, they are eight points back, with three teams to vault. This will likely be a bridge too far for Steve Diamond’s men, but the Premiership has already taken plenty of twists this season. Ruling anything out (or in) is foolhardy at this point.
Exeter v. London Welsh
For the briefest of moments, it looked like the Welsh had some life. Within eighteen minutes, they had scored two tries, and were actually leading Exeter 12-6. Everyone in the stadium was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did, with vicious efficiency. Will Chudley scored his second try in two weeks in the 22nd minute, followed by three more before the half. Exeter went from 12-6 down to 34-12 up in the span of sixteen minutes, a display that could be called extraordinary if it was not emblematic of the Exiles’ season. The Chiefs, intent on boosting their point differential in the tight playoff race, did not let up in the second half. Henry Slade, newly recalled into the England camp, scored a try of his own, and was joined by Thomas Waldrom, who touched down twice more. Seb Stegmann scored at the end of the match for the Welsh, but the final scoreline makes for grim reading: 74-19 to the Chiefs.
Gloucester v. Northampton
Northampton entered the match 12 points ahead of the chasing pack, and their laissez-faire attitude caught up to them in the first half. Gloucester came out all guns firing, taking a 23-9 lead into the break after falling behind early. James Hook and Charlie Sharples combined for a lovely try on a great weekend for Premiership try scorers, while Northampton responded with a beautiful move of their own from inside their 22 that resulted in James Wilson crossing the whitewash. If you have the time, the match is well worth watching, seesawing back and forth throughout the second half. Northampton re-established their dominance in the last twenty minutes, but it they entered the last five minutes behind 33-26 courtesy of a Greig Laidlaw penalty. However, Samu Manoa had the final say, crashing over for a close range score. Stephen Myler duly dispatched the conversion, and the match ended as a thrilling 33-33 draw.
Leicester v. Newcastle
The Falcons have continued to improve immensely throughout the season. For the first time in years, they entered a match against one of the Premiership’s top sides with real hope and expectation, and they came very close to delivering a famous victory at home. Ahead 12-6 at the half, the Falcons were in the ascendancy and appeared the better team on the day. However, Leicester continued to exert pressure and controlled possession in the second half, and Freddie Burns cut the deficit to three with a penalty in the 59th minute. The Tigers went for broke in the final five minutes, and Burns launched a cross-field kick. Brothers Matthew and Alex Tait rose in the air, and Tommy Bell gathered the ball and appeared to touch down for the decisive score. The TMO reviewed for nearly five minutes before determining that the try could stand, and Leicester escaped with a 16-12 win.
Harlequins v. London Irish
Harelquins managed to re-insert themselves into the European conversation with a 26-20 win over the London Irish at the Stoop. Nick Evans found his sights again, kicking six from six and hauling in 16 points for Quins. The home team looked comfortably in front after Matt Hopper crashed over to give them a 24-13 lead in the 47th minute, but the Irish pegged Harlequins back in the 65th with a try of their own. A tense final fifteen minutes ensued, as Quins managed to hang on to their slender six point lead. The Exiles’ defensive effort could be a source for concern. They missed 31 tackles and had multiple balls turned over at the ruck.
Wasps v. Saracens
Wasps produced two of the best individual tries of the year, but still fell short against Saracens, 26-17. Things started brightly for the Wasps, as they raced out to a 17-3 lead after brilliance from Christian Wade and Elliot Daly. However, Saracens maintained their composure. Alex Goode made his kicks and steadied the ship after being forced to deputize once more at fly-half. In the end, Saracens’ dominance in the forward pack was the decisive factor. They were able to maintain 60 percent possession and 67 percent of the territory, though their lineout sputtered slightly. Saracens moved back into second with the victory, while Wasps sunk to sixth, three points off the pace.