LONDON, ENGLAND – With nineteen rounds in the books, the playoff picture is still unsettled in England. The potential field has been winnowed to five teams, but the race for a home semi-final heated up when Bath cooled down in March. With three rounds left, nothing is certain.
Bath vs. Newcastle
Newcastle sits in eleventh place in the table, but they have plenty to feel good about after their last two months. Although the Falcons have not been able to collect the victories that might vault them up the table, Newcastle has shown remarkable improvement over their poor form at the beginning of the season. Dating back to December, Newcastle has only one ugly loss to Exeter that truly mars their resume. Despite their improvement, the Falcons did not have enough in their tank to beat Bath at Kingston Park on Friday, going down 29-19 in a hard-fought encounter. Bath brutally exploited space in the backs to score their tries, but RugbyWrapUp favorite Sinoti Sinoti scored the try of the evening when he burned three men on the outside in the thirty-first minute. The home team went into the locker room behind 19-13 after allowing a 39th minute try to Anthony Watson. The Falcons’ scrum was under pressure all evening, and it buckled in the second half. Matt Banahan secured Bath’s try-scoring bonus point only two minutes into the second half. With a solid platform, Bath controlled the rest of the match, even when Carl Fearns was sent to the sin bin in the 65th minute for dragging down a maul. Newcastle were denied a losing bonus point in the 73rd minute when George Ford slotted a penalty. The result left Bath with a tenuous grasp of second place heading into the weekend, but their lead was overturned by results elsewhere.
Saracens vs. Leicester
Saracens sold out their annual encounter with the Tigers with days to spare, but few spectators will tell tales of Saturday’s dull clash. Leicester have scored the second-fewest tries in the Premiership, above only the dismal London Welsh, and they failed to cross the whitewash on Saturday. Freddie Burns and Ben Youngs marshalled ably from the half-back positions, but there was no incision to be found in the Tiger attack. Saracens blitz defense kept Leicester on the back foot, and the home team enjoyed the majority of possession and territory in the first half. Ill-discipline and good penalty kicking from Burns allowed Leicester to go on top 6-0, but Leicester’s disintegration began just before the half. With a five-meter scrum put-in, Saracens won three successive penalties before Billy Vunipola crashed over. The try actually might have come as a relief to Leicester, who were in danger of going down to 13 men the next time the whistle blew for a violation. Saracens came back out with momentum, and wasted no time, scoring two tries through Marcelo Bosch and Chris Wyles in the first ten minutes of the second half. Though the home fans urged their team on, knowing that a bonus point could be vital to Saracens’ hope of a home semi-final, the men in black were unable to answer to call in the last thirty minutes. Saracens ended the day by displacing Bath in second, and Leicester sunk to fifth in the table with matches to come against Northampton and Wasps.
Exeter vs. Northampton
Exeter put down a major playoff marker at Sandy Park, bringing down the defending champions 21-10. Exeter had control of the match from the opening whistle, and Rob Baxter’s charges took advantage of a game against a direct playoff rival to put themselves back in the playoff positions. Saints entered the match needing a victory to secure their place in the semi-finals, but they came out flat against the fired-up Chiefs. Northampton shot themselves in the foot with three yellow cards on the afternoon. Each time, Exeter punished the Saints, putting thirteen of their points on the board while they had a man advantage. Fullback Phil Dollman crossed for a rare try for the Chiefs’ backs, and Exeter were awarded a penalty try in the forty fifth minute to round out three Henry Slade penalties. Northampton remain in first place, but Exeter slid up to fourth after this result. They are three points ahead of the Tigers, placing the former Championship side in a great position heading into the final three rounds.
Best of the Rest
Wasps kept themselves on the fringes of the playoff conversation with a 40-12 victory over London Welsh. Tom Varndell scored a hat-trick taking him to within three tries of Mark Cueto on the all-time list in the Premiership. Harlequins won a battle of disappointing teams against Gloucester, 29-26. Nick Evans and Greig Laidlaw traded kicks, with the former tallying 14 points to the latter’s 11. In a dead rubber, London Irish pulled off a shock upset, defeating Sale 25-23. Two sides playing out the string combined for an entertaining match with six tries, two of which belonged to Alex Lewington.