NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – The fifteenth round of Aviva Premiership action saw a few surprises; one team emphasized their unlikely playoff credentials, while others fatally faltered in the absence of star players. Three teams will be vying for one final playoff berth, but with seven rounds to go there’s plenty of action yet to come, as the season enters its stretch run. Let’s get to this week’s Aviva Premiership Talking Points:
Sale in Playoff Spot, For One Glorious Day
At this time last season, Sale were mired in a true dogfight against the London Welsh, before the Salford side’s superior resources and squad depth began to tell and they eventually pulled away safely. At times, Steve Diamond’s project has looked doomed, but he stuck with a relatively solid core of players, including Danny Cipriani, when other teams would have pulled the plug. This season, the Sharks are reaping the rewards other side’s injury crises and England call-ups, and though the team in only one game above .500, they spent Saturday occupying the final playoff spot after defeating Worcester 24-12 at Sixways. Mark Cueto marked his 200th appearance with Sale by scoring a quality try in the fifth minute, before Dan Braid added another after the half to put the visitors ahead by 21-0. Though Worcester would mount a modest fightback, they look to be in serious danger of finishing the campaign without a win.
Gloucester Shock Quins at Kingsholm
Harlequins showed exactly how much they’re missing the stars that led England to victory at Twickenham, falling to the Cherry and Whites by a final score of 25-20. Though the trio of Brown, Care, and Robshaw were superb for England, Quins may have to get used to coping without three to five of their best players on any international weekend. Ben Botica performed well, scoring eight points before the half, allowing the visitors to head to the locker room with a 13-7 lead. However, Matt Kvesic, out of form all season, scored a try early in the second period, reversing the momentum and setting up a rare Gloucester victory. The home team sits in ninth place, ahead of only London Irish, Newcastle, and Worcester. Fans will be hoping heavy summer additions will turn things around, though the Cherry and Whites added a number of quality players before this campaign as well, to little result.
Bath Roll, Make it 12 Consecutive Victories at the Rec
Bath played in a fantastic advertisement for the Premiership, running over the London Wasps 32-25. Seven tries were scored between the teams, as Anthony Watson crossed the whitewash twice. He seems unfortunate to be playing in the same position as one of the world’s form players at the moment, Mike Brown, but if Watson continues to produce at this level, England will have to find room in their setup for the young fullback. The Wasps fought back heartily, striking through Nathan Hughes, Will Helu, and Elliot Daly, but in the end their efforts came to naught. Bath sits in third place on 49 points, ten behind league leaders Northampton, while Wasps are five off the European Cup pace with 34 points.
Northampton Made to Sweat Against Newcastle
The league leaders were in action on Sunday against Newcastle. The Saints looked in control for seventy eight minutes before a Noah Cato try on 78 minutes brought the Falcons to within six points. The score at full time was 22-16 in favor of Saints, but Northampton took their foot off the accelerator after going ahead 12-0 after 16 minutes, but Newcastle proved that their home-field advantage must be taken seriously. Kahn Fotuali’i was supposed to be Northampton’s big summer acquisition, in addition to George North, and is proving his mettle in Lee Dickson’s absence on England duty. Newcastle remained twelve points clear of the relegation spot with their bonus point loss.
Leicester Outlasts London Irish
The Tigers managed to snatch victory away from London Irish, prevailing 20-15 at the Madejski Stadium after a close first half. Ben Youngs scored an early try, while Lugovi’i Munipola added his first of the season in a controversial ruling. James O’Connor proved his devotion to the Irish cause with three penalties. Though the Australian fullback has secured a move to France for next season, he has kept his nose clean and played well in the past two months for the London club. Vereniki Goneva continued a great season with a try of the week candidate, while Owen Williams started with Toby Flood on the bench. Thomas Waldrom did not make things easy for the Tigers, who were forced to play with fourteen men from the 67th minute after a yellow card offense.
Exeter Continue Slide
The Chiefs looked like they were in a good position before the Christmas break, but have now lost five consecutive matches in the Premiership, dropping them into eighth position behind Sale and the London Wasps. A limp effort from Exeter saw them score only 10 points, and the Cheifs looked tired in the second half. The loss of hooker Jack Yeandle in the first half led to difficulties in the lineout, but the teams were tied at 7 heading into halftime. Saracens eventually scored through a try from Schalk Brits and two Charlie Hodgson penalties, winning by a final score of 23-10.