Exeter, England – The Chiefs entered the season as mid-table mediocrities. Their rise through the ranks of England’s club rugby system has been extraordinary, but the general consensus was that the team had reached it’s zenith with Heineken Cup appearances. Given the strength of Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens, Northampton, and Bath, Exeter were expected to compete for the final European Champions Cup slot at best, and sink to the level of stragglers London Irish at worst. Instead, they fought to the brink of a playoff position, only to be undone by points differential. Next year, they have more reinforcements from Leicester arriving in the hulking forms of Julian Salvi and Geoff Parling. The Chiefs probably won’t catch anybody by surprise in the playoff race next year, but that does little to ease the pain of this weekend. The 2014-15 Aviva Premiership season went out with a bang, and RugbyWrapUp has your weekly recap.
Leicester v. Northampton
Jim Mallinder rested most of his stars for the final weekend of the season, but the Saint’s “B” team put up a ferocious fight in the East Midlands derby. The Tigers entered play needing only a victory to secure their playoff status. They will be grateful there was no need to hunt for a bonus point- the Tigers’ 37 tries on the season was second worst in the league by a large margin. Things started brightly for the Tigers, who were ahead 8-3 after 14 minutes. However, Northampton chipped away, and Leicester headed into the break down by a point, 9-8. The Tigers fortunes lifted with a series of six consecutive scrums on the five meter line early in the second half. Marcos Ayerza, entering as a substitute for Logovi’i Munipola, tore the Northampton front row apart, earning two yellow cards for loose heads Salesi Ma’afu and Gareth Denman. The Tigers eased ahead, claiming a 22-9 advantage, but hearts were briefly set racing when Tom Stephenson darted over for a try in the 74th minute. The conversion sailed wide, and Leicester were assured victory, and the extension of a playoff streak dating to 2004. The Tigers will face Bath at the Rec on Saturday, where they were humiliated 45-0 in September. Northampton will return home to prepare for their own semi-final against Saracens.
Exeter v. Sale
Rob Baxter‘s half-time team talk must have been a thing of searing ferocity, or perhaps he pointed to the Saracens score to inspire his troops. Whatever the case, Exeter demolished Sale in the second half, cantering to a 44-16 victory which was not enough to secure their place in the playoffs. The Sharks fought hard in the first forty minutes, and were 11-8 ahead before a Jack Nowell try in the 35th minute put Exeter in the lead for good. The floodgates opened after the half. Exeter scored three tries between the 57th and 64th minute and appeared as though they might challenge Saracens’ point differential against London Welsh. Sale tightened up however, and the Chiefs were unable to do any more damage until the 74th minute, when Byron McGuigin crossed the whitewash. Exeter ended the day on 68 points along with Saracens and Leicester, but they would have needed to bridge a 20 point gap to travel to Northampton.
Wasps v. London Irish
It may have been a dead rubber, but Wasps and London Irish certainly provided fireworks in the last game of the season. Wasps have always been known for their offensive prowess, but the Irish surprised many by keeping pace throughout the match. Things got off to a roaring start in the fourth minute when Andy Fenby crashed over following two line breaks from his teammates which scattered the Wasps’ defense. The match refused to slow down, and by the half it was 22-18 in London Irish’s favor. There were twists and turns aplenty to come, and James Haskell looked as if he had the last word with a 75th minute try. However, Andy Short had something to say about that, and leveled the scores at 40 only three minutes later. Shane Geraghty, an unsung hero all season long, watched as his conversion sailed wide and the teams ended their seasons with a draw.
Best of the Rest
It was always going to be a bonus point victory for Saracens, who demolished London Welsh one final time en route to their semi-final appearance. London Welsh crossed the 1000 points conceded mark by shipping 68 to Saracens, who build an unassailable points difference throughout the match. Bath and Gloucester matched Wasps and London Irish’s 80 point total, but Bath had the better of the match, winning 50-30 courtesy of tries from seven different players. Newcastle finally got the result they wanted, winning decisively against a tired and disappointing Harlequins outfit, 37-21. Quins will hope that signing British and Irish Lion Jamie Roberts can do something to lift their sagging backline, which will lose Ugo Monye to retirement this offseason.