The Six Nations overshadows an intriguing period in the Gallagher Premiership as the end of the season looms closer and the playoff picture heats up. Saracens and Sale have established themselves in a class of their own, creating an intense six-team battle for the final two spots. A free week in the Six Nations allowed the Premiership to steal the limelight briefly, and we weren’t disappointed with a round doused in drama and a couple of surprise results. Several of Steve Borthwick’s discarded England players took to the field, along with some edging their way back to fitness, providing an intriguing subplot through the weekend. England’s loss against Scotland and their solid, if unspectacular, win against Italy would have incentivised several players currently left in the cold.
Gloucester 28 V 26 Harlequins
The weekend kicked off at Kingsholm, where Gloucester edged Harlequins in a thrilling, high-tempo encounter. The match saw Danny Care become Harlequins’ all-time leading appearance maker, but Gloucester flew out the blocks quickest, Seb Blake rumbling over from a maul after James Chisholm had received a yellow card near the line. Quins hit back through their own maul, Tom Lawday powering over after Andre Esterhuisen lent his considerable weight. Gloucester re-took the lead through Ollie Thorley’s try, Thorley rising superbly to claim Santiago Carreras’s pinpoint crossfield kick. After a bruising first half, Gloucester led 14-7, despite Quins having considerable spells of possession in the Gloucester 22.
Quins showed greater accuracy in the second half, with Cadan Murley dotting down for their second try after being fed by Nick David. Gloucester almost edged further ahead after a scorching surge down the touchline from the returning Louis Rees-Zammit, but a superb last-ditch tackle by Tommy Allan denied the winger. Quins took the lead shortly after, replacement Sam Riley crashing over after a typically flowing Quins move, including an astonishing offload from Esterhuisen off his bootlaces. However, Gloucester roared back, Carreras darting over after a rampaging beak from Jack Clement. Gloucester sealed the bonus point minutes later, Rees-Zammit scorching onto the impressive Carreras’s inside ball to fly in under the posts. Quins kept fighting until the end, and Matas Jurevicius’s try at the death gave them two bonus points. Gloucester’s win sees them move into fourth, while there will be minor concerns at Quins after their fifth consecutive league defeat.
Bristol 30 V 12 Newcastle Falcons
In Friday’s other game, Bristol’s superior game management saw them past Newcastle at a rainy Ashton Gate. Harry Randall scored two tries and caused numerous problems with his box-kicking to provide Steve Borthwick with a timely reminder of his talents. Newcastle will rue not taking their chances in the first half, with Gary Graham being denied his second try by a superb tackle from Fitz Harding. Randall sniped over early in the second half to extend Bristol’s lead before Jamie Blamire bounced his way over to provide a glimmer of hope for visitors. However, it wasn’t to be, and the excellent Fitz Harding gave Bristol the bonus point with the clock in the red after the Falcons had attempted to play from their own line.
Bath 10 V 25 London Irish
London Irish heaped more misery on the Premiership’s basement club, Bath, while bolstering their playoff hopes with a win at the Rec. Bath dominated the first half, but failed to make their numerous entries to Irish’s 22 count, their only try coming through Josh Bayliss after Rob Simmons had been sin-binned for the visitors. Irish hit back quickly, Tom Pearson’s half break and deft offload allowing Paddy Jackson and Tom Stokes to combine, with the former diving over for the try. Scotland scrum-half Ben White bolted over just before halftime, giving Irish the lead. Bath’s ill-discipline hampered them in the second half, receiving two yellow cards and allowing Irish to control the game. Despite some spirited Bath defence, Paddy Jackson’s boot and a try from Janse van Rensburg eased the visitors to a comfortable victory.
Northampton Saints 38 V 34 Sale Sharks
Sale travelled to Northampton bolstered by the return of several England players, with Borthwick releasing Jonny Hill and Manu Tuilagi while Tom Curry made his return from injury. However, Tuilagi was perhaps over-eager to make his mark and received an early red card after catching Fraser Dingwall’s head with his elbow whilst carrying the ball. Sale had taken an early lead after winger Aaron Reed latched on to Rob Du Preez’s grubber kick, but they faced playing 65 minutes with fourteen men against the Premiership’s leading try scorers. The visitors seemed unperturbed, however, stretching their lead with tries from Curry and Du Preez as the hosts struggled to cope with their physicality. Tom James’s try got the hosts on the board, but Ewan Ashman’s try before halftime gave Sale an imposing 24-7 lead at halftime.
Du Preez extended their lead further with a penalty after the restart, but Cobus Weise’s yellow card for a high tackle provided a window of hope for the hosts. Northampton ate into Sale’s advantage with the impressive Tommy Freeman going over off the back of a line out, and the winger then turned provider, feeding Matt Proctor to go over. Sale’s maul turned the momentum again, with Sam Dugdale burrowing over, giving Sale a fifteen-point buffer. However, Sale then found themselves back down to thirteen, with Ashman charged with illegally stopping a Saints maul, referee Ian Tempest awarding a penalty try to make it a double blow. Substitute George Ford, making his Premiership debut for Sale, showed his game management skills to drag Sale upfield, but the Saints weren’t to be denied. Callum Braley’s try dragged them within a point, and Saints snatched victory with minutes remaining, Fraser Dingwall scoring the crucial try. It was a bitter pill for Sale to swallow after battling hard all game despite their man disadvantage.