Sarries push for home semis
SATURDAY PREMIERSHIP WRAP: Saracens overcame a slow first half to sign off their departing club legends in style with a bonus-point 27-9 victory over Bristol at Allianz Park.
On the day that they said farewell to both Neil de Kock and Kelly Brown, Sarries’ push for a home semifinal looked to have taken a massive dent in the first half.
Three penalties from Gavin Henson to one from Owen Farrell meant the basements boys were leading 9-3 at the break.
But after the interval Saracens finally clicked into gear as Chris Ashton, Petrus du Plessis (2) and Nick Tompkins all went over for the defending league and European champions.
In Saturday's other games, Freddie Burns gave a starring performance in his final home appearance for Leicester Tigers to put them on brink of qualification for the Premiership Rugby semifinals with a 41-18 bonus-point victory over Sale Sharks.
And Exeter Chiefs became the first Premiership Rugby side to secure seven straight bonus-point wins with their biggest ever victory against Northampton Saints.
We look at the Saturday matches!
Saracens 27-9 Bristol
Victory means Mark McCall’s side are two points behind the Exeter Chiefs in the race for second with a trip to Sandy Park up next in the final round of the regular season while table toppers Wasps are also two points in front but lead the standings on games won.
Saracens had won their last five matches against Bristol in all competitions since the West Countrymen’s 18-3 victory at Memorial Stadium in Premiership Rugby in January 2008.
This was Bristol’s first visit to Allianz Park, however, but on a day that Sarries said goodbye to two club legends in de Kock and Brown, it was the visitors who settled quicker as the defending champions endured one of the most frustrating halves of their season.
Playing into the wind, handling errors plagued their every move while the boot of Henson forced them to come from behind.
Sarries certainly came the closest to a try, first, an Alex Lozowski interception nearly released Ashton before the wing then came even closer with a kick and chase score that was ruled out by the TMO for offside.
And from the latter infringement, Henson kicked the visitors – already guaranteed to finish bottom of the pile – into a 3-0 lead.
And the Welshman continued to turn the screw against his former club with two more penalties before half time to open out a 9-0 lead against a shell-shocked Sarries.
Farrell pulled one penalty of his own back before the break but at the interval, McCall’s men were in real danger of a first loss on this ground since March 2016.
But not for nothing are Sarries on a five-match winning streak in all competitions and from the off they were on the attack.
And the pressure finally told when Ashton produced a moment of magic on the right wing, collecting his own delicate kick through to score after Tompkins’ fine work in the build-up.
Farrell – on his 150th game for the club – banged over the conversion for good measure and Saracens were in front at 10-9.
And after that it was one-way traffic – Sarries emptying their bench as the likes of Jamie George and Richard Wigglesworth were introduced.
That meant de Kock and Brown were given their chance to bid the Allianz Park faithful farewell one last time but in between, there was also a marquee moment for du Plessis.
The tighthead prop – on as a replacement – emerged from the bottom of a rolling maul as Sarries’ second try scorer on the day, his first ever for the club on what could be his final home appearance.
Farrell missed that conversion but now the hosts were humming and Lozowski’s fantastic break and offload put Tompkins over for their third try of the second half.
A fourth try and a bonus point arrived right at the death and it was that man du Plessis who went over again, Farrell’s conversion sealing a fine victory.
Tries: Ashton, du Plessis 2, Tompkins
Cons: Farrell 2
Pens: Henson 3
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Nick Tompkins, 12 Alex Lozowski, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell (captain), 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Petrus du Plessis, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Matt Gallagher, 23 Mike Ellery.
Bristol: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Ryan Edwards, 13 Will Hurrell, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Jack Tovey, 10 Billy Searle, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Mitch Eadie, 7 Olly Robinson, 6 Sam Jeffries, 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 James Phillips, 3 Gaston Cortes, 2 Marc Jones (captain), 1 Jack O’Connell.
Replacements: 16 Max Crumpton, 17 Ollie Dawe, 18 Jamal Ford-Robinson, 19 Ben Glynn, 20 Nick Fenton-Wells, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Tusi Pisi, 23 Siale Piutau.
Referee: Andrew Jackson
Assistant Referees: Anthony Woodthorpe, Paul Burton
TMO: David Rose
Leicester Tigers 41-18 Sale Sharks
Burns was one of five Leicester try scorers, scoring 19 points in total, while Owen Williams and Jack Roberts also struck on what were their Welford Road farewells.
The victory means the Tigers are now nine points clear of fifth-placed Bath Rugby, who must best West Country rivals Gloucester Rugby at The Rec on Sunday to take the race for the top four into the final day.
Sale were reduced to 14 men after just four minutes when wing Josh Charnley was shown a yellow card and their forwards struggled at the first scrum, giving Burns the easy task of opening the scoring with a penalty.
Denny Solomona almost hit the hosts with a sucker punch when he kicked ahead on the counter-attack, only for the ball to go into touch in the Tigers’ 22.
Just after Charnley returned to the field, the Sharks took the lead when a driving maul from a five-metre line-out rumbled its way over the line, with captain Rob Webber grounding the ball.
AJ MacGinty added an excellent conversion from out wide before the USA flyhalf extended the gap to 10-3 with a penalty following another line-out.
Leicester were level within two minutes, however, as Burns neatly stepped through a gap to score a try down the left and he converted himself.
This settled Leicester down and they were in front just after the half-hour mark when Graham Kitchener stretched to score from close range on what was his 100th appearance for the club.
Burns converted before making the score 20-10 with a penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Sale began the second half strongly and MacGinty pulled back three points not long after Laurence Pearce had been held up over the try-line by Dom Barrow.
Leicester effectively finished the match as a contest after 63 minutes as Burns kicked towards the posts and after MacGinty was unable to clear up and Williams pounced to score.
Four minutes later, the bonus point was in the bag for the Tigers, when Roberts slipped through some Sale tackling to go over under the posts.
The Sharks never gave up though and they pulled a try back with five minutes left, when Cameron Neild drew his man before passing left to give Bryn Evans an easy run-in.
There was still time for the hosts to add some extra gloss to the score, with Ben Youngs feeding George McGuigan from close range off the final play.
Tries: Burns, Kitchener, Williams, Roberts, McGuigan
Cons: Burns 4, Williams
Pens: Burns 2
Tries: Webber, Evans
Pens: MacGinty 2
Yellow Card: Josh Charnley (Sale Sharks, 3)
Leicester: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Adam Thompstone, 13 Jack Roberts, 12 Owen Williams, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Luke Hamilton, 7 Brendon O’Connor, 6 Mike Williams, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Dom Barrow, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs (captain), 1 Ellis Genge.
Replacements: 16 George McGuigan, 17 Greg Bateman, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Mike Fitzgerald, 20 Harry Thacker, 21 Sam Harrison, 22 Matt Smith, 23 Peter Betham.
Sale: 15 Mike Haley, 14 Denny Solomona, 13 Sam James, 12 Mark Jennings, 11 Josh Charnley, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Laurence Pearce, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Cameron Neild, 5 George Nott, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Rob Webber (captain), 1 Ross Harrison.
Replacements: 16 Ben Curry, 17 James Flynn, 18 Diogo Ferreira, 19 Magnus Lund, 20 David Seymour, 21 Peter Stringer, 22 Johnny Leota, 23 Byron McGuigan.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys
Assistant Referees: Nigel Carrick, Matthew O’Grady
TMO: Geoff Warren
Exeter Chiefs 36-12 Northampton Saints
The visitors struck first, but they spent much of the first half on the defensive and it seemed inevitable that Exeter would hit back.
And they hit hard, with Don Armand and Olly Woodburn going over before the break, to give Rob Baxter’s side a half-time lead.
In the second period, they were as equally intense as Ian Whitten and the busy Jack Nowell crossed, killing any hopes of a Saints fightback – before Sam Hill and a second from Woodburn added gloss to the result.
Exeter’s backs have been flying in recent weeks but Baxter was without both Jack Maunder and Henry Slade.
However, Lions wing Nowell was back in the team along with centre Whitten.
Northampton were also forced into changes with Louis Picamoles and Stephen Myler both forced out, with Teimana Harrison and JJ Hanrahan starting.
Exeter began on the front foot, running with purpose and creating space as they pulled the Saints left and right.
But they were undone when a loose pass was thrown from left to right and Saints flyhalf Hanrahan spotted an opportunity, intercepting the ball to score the opening try.
And it got worse for Exeter minutes later when prop Greg Holmes limped off injured, followed in quick succession by flank Dave Ewers – while Northampton lost Courtney Lawes.
After a lull in the game as things calmed down following a frantic opening, Exeter thought they hit back shortly after the half-hour mark as Nowell dived in at the corner.
But replays showed he lost the ball just as he went to dot down, and the Saints were handed a reprieve.
However, Exeter’s hard graft off as Armand powered over from close range – as their forwards got to work with a series of carries.
That re-instilled them with confidence, and they looked set to add a second in the left corner but the Saints were penalised when the ball was deliberately knocked on by Ken Pisi – with Woodburn waiting.
But the wing only had to wait a matter of seconds, as the Chiefs worked it well from a line-out and Woodburn scored his ninth try of the season from Stu Townsend’s pass.
And after the break, Exeter stretched their advantage with a third try as Whitten ghosted through.
Sensing a bonus point and a place at the top of the table, Exeter piled forward and Northampton struggled to contain them.
The Chiefs sent on scrum-half Will Chudley for his first appearance since early January, as they tried to unpick Northampton.
And his impact was almost immediate as a Chudley kick landed perfectly for the chasing Woodburn, but full-back Ben Foden just got across in the time.
Northampton showed plenty of spirit as they continued to repel Exeter’s attack, with Harry Mallinder stealing the ball when Exeter’s forwards looked set to score.
But Exeter were just too good going forward, and Nowell crossed for his 18th Aviva Premiership Rugby try.
Northampton stabilised as they utilised their replacement bench, but Hill came off the bench to score a fifth try for the Chiefs with 11 minutes left, while Nowell set up Woodburn for his second shortly after – before Ahsee Tuala grabbed a consolation for the Saints at the death.
Tries: Armand, Woodburn 2, Whitten, Nowell, Hill
Cons: Steenson 2, Simmonds
Tries: Hanrahan, Tuala
Con: Hanrahan Hanrahan
Yellow Card: Ken Pisi (Northampton Saints, 31)
Exeter: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson, 9 Stuart Townsend, 8 Kai Horstmann, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Jack Yeandle (captain), 1 Carl Rimmer.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Ollie Atkins, 20 Julian Salvi, 21 Will Chudley, 22 Sam Simmonds, 23 Sam Hill.
Northampton: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Harry Mallinder, 11 Ben Foden, 10 JJ Hanrahan, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Teimana Harrison, 7 Jamie Gibson, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 David Ribbans, 4 Christian Day, 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Dylan Hartley (captain), 1 Alex Waller .
Replacements: 16 Mikey Haywood, 17 Campese Ma’afu, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Api Ratuniyarawa, 20 Sam Dickinson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Nafi Tuitavake, 23 Juan Pablo Estelles.
Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant Referees: Jack Makepeace, Ross Campbell
TMO: David Grashoff