Many an Exeter Chiefs nail may have been bitten at Allianz Park on Sunday, but Rob Baxter insists his nerves weren’t overly frayed as an intriguing Aviva Premiership Rugby weekend ended in fittingly dramatic circumstances.
Thomas Waldrom’s second try – and 16th of the season – was enough to see the Chiefs past Saracens on the pitch and in the table, as they leapfrogged their way into the top four and set up a mouthwatering final round of fixtures in the battle for a semi-final berth.
Luke Cowan-Dickie and Waldrom crossed for the visitors in the first half, while Mark McCall’s men notched two stunning scores through Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles.
Those efforts were not enough to see the hosts to victory, however, and Baxter applauded his team for the nature of their performance following recent disappointments.
“It’s easy for me compared to the efforts of the players today – they were absolutely amazing,” the Chiefs boss said.
“I thought they came here in exactly the right frame of mind, they did exactly what we asked them today.
“We felt we let ourselves down in the last couple of performances, we hadn’t turned up or brought the physicality and intensity you need to deserve to win games of this magnitude.
“I thought we brought that today, that gave us a chance and then we saw it home in the closing stages.
“I wouldn’t say I was too nervous at the end really because I realised we delivered a performance that merited something – I said to the lads that if we had not made it over the line there it would still have been a much better performance.”
Exeter and Saracens both head into the final round of fixtures with their end-of-season fate still undecided, a situation mirrored by Leicester Tigers, who produced one of their best displays of the season to down Wasps at a packed Ricoh Arena on Saturday.
Tries from Niall Morris, Vereniki Goneva and Adam Thompstone ensured the Tigers overcame the sending off of Seremai Bai and maintained their interest in the end-of-season shootout, sitting third at the end of the weekend.
Six penalties from the boot of Andy Goode and one from Alex Lozowski were not enough for the hosts as their top-four aspirations were laid to rest, director of rugby Dai Young admitting the result was a fair one.
“I’ve no complaints – the better team won,” he said.
“It’s no accident that Leicester are in the top four year after year. We struggled to cope with their physicality and we failed to keep hold of the ball long enough to make our one-man advantage count.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t do ourselves justice, but the Tigers were outstanding.”
Elsewhere, Mark Cueto marked his final home appearance for Sale Sharks in fitting fashion as he scored one of his side’s five tries in a bonus point victory over Newcastle Falcons.
Cueto’s 90th Aviva Premiership Rugby try was added to by efforts from Chris Cusiter, Sam Tuitupou, David Seymour and TJ Ioane, while Adam Powell, Richard Mayhew and Sinoti Sinoti went over for the Falcons in a tight 34-28 defeat.
Gloucester Rugby continued their post-European Rugby Challenge Cup celebrations with a convincing win over London Irish at Kingsholm, 20 points from the boot of Greig Laidlaw the catalyst as the Cherry & Whites moved ten points clear of their opponents – despite Matt Kvesic’s first-half red card.
Saturday’s fixtures also saw Northampton Saints pen their names into the Aviva Premiership Rugby top spot, London Welsh the latest team to fall by the wayside at Franklin’s Gardens thanks in part to try doubles from England stars Lee Dickson and Luther Burrell.
The 46-0 victory ensured the reigning champions will be at home for their semi-final, and Jim Mallinder insisted it was a box ticked as they look to end this year in an identical fashion to the 2014 campaign.
“We did what we needed to do to get the five points and make sure we finish first, then we need to have a good think about what we want to do next weekend,” Mallinder said.
“We’ve talked about little targets, little goals week by week and we said it would be fantastic to finish top and we’ve achieved that now.
“But it’s amazing how quickly you need to move on in terms of not being satisfied with just that, so we’re delighted but not content because we know we’ve got another job to do.”
And the weekend’s first Aviva Premiership Rugby clash saw Bath Rugby edge a thriller against Harlequins under the Friday night lights at the Stoop, as Ugo Monye and George Robson played their final home games for the hosts.
Monye showed the Quins faithful what they’ll be missing as he notched two tries, but it wasn’t enough to see his side pick up the points – Francois Louw, Horacio Agulla and Leroy Houston went over to leave Mike Ford reflecting on a long-awaited success.
“We came here to win, it is always a tough place to come and we had not won here since 2004 in the Premiership,” the Bath boss said.
“I don’t think we were that great but I thought the last 20 minutes where we took the game on a little bit, our lineout drive and lineout defence was great and that essentially won us the game as George kicked his goals.
“The Premiership is a tough place and you can’t go out and expect the game to go your way for the full 80 minutes.”
Saracens 20-24 Exeter Chiefs
Tries: Ashton, Wyles
Conversions: Hodgson 2
Penalties: Hodgson, Farrell
Tries: Cowan-Dickie, Waldrom 2
Conversions: Steenson 3
Referee: JP Doyle
Wasps 21-26 Leicester Tigers
Penalties: Goode 6, Lozowski
Tries: Morris, Goneva, Thompstone
Penalties: Burns 3
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Sale Sharks 34-28 Newcastle Falcons
Tries: Cusiter, Cueto, Tuitupou, Seymour, Ioane
Conversions: Cipriani 3
Tries: Powell, Socino, Mayhew
Conversions: Socino 2
Penalties: Clegg 3
Referee: Matthew Carley
Northampton Saints 46-0 London Welsh
Tries: Dickson 2, Tuala, Burrell 2, Elliott
Conversions: Myler 3, Wilson 2
Penalties: Myler 2
Referee: Andrew Small
Gloucester Rugby 35-13 London Irish
Tries: May, D Thomas, Purdy
Penalties: Laidlaw 6
Tries: Lewington, Short
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys
Harlequins 26-27 Bath Rugby
Tries: Monye 2, Penalty
Penalties: Evans 3
Tries: Louw, Agulla, Houston
Conversions: Ford 3
Penalties: Ford 2
Referee: Greg Garner
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