After seeing his Exeter Chiefs side complete the double over reigning Aviva Premiership Rugby champions Northampton Saints, head coach Rob Baxter insists they are thriving under the pressure of a tough finale to the season.
The hosts started in sublime style at Sandy Park as Phil Dolman arced and cut his way through for an early try, only for James Wilson’s score to make it 8-5 at the break.
The Chiefs pack produced a fearless display after the interval as the visitors saw three men sent to the bin, with Exeter awarded a penalty try to help secure a 21-10 triumph despite Jamie Elliott’s late score for Northampton.
Having already beaten Saints 24-18 at Franklin’s Gardens in November, victory gave Chiefs their first ever league double over Northampton and moved them back into the top four.
And while Exeter still have to face Wasps, Saracens and Sale Sharks in pursuit of a semi-final berth, Baxter is confident his side will continue to rise to the occasion with just three rounds to go.
“It was all about collecting some important league points because everyone has been saying that we have had the toughest run-in for the last five or six games – which is probably true – but that makes for some great games,” he said.
“We grew as the game went on and did well in the forward exchanges – there is no getting away from that – and ultimately that pressure counts for a lot.
“The league positions don't lie. Look at Northampton and that shows that they have been the consistent achievers and performers over the season. We are back in fourth place and that is probably about right.”
Tom Varndell’s hat-trick may have fired Wasps to a 40-13 bonus-point victory at the Kassam Stadium, but London Welsh head coach Rowland Phillips believes Exiles debutants Chris Elder and Darren Waters were just as impressive.
The hosts trailed by just four points shortly after the interval until Ashley Johnson crossed over and Varndell added to his two earlier scores before Sailosi Tagicakibau and Alapati Leiua also touched down.
Despite Wasps’ late blitz, Elder capped a fine performance with a try in his first Aviva Premiership Rugby game, to leave Phillips delighted with the promise of his young players.
“Darren Waters had been out for a long time, but he just wants to play,” he said. “And Chris Elder we know is a talented player, he's a young boy and was given half a chance.
“His performance was good generally and to score that try was outstanding, he's a special talent.
“But I thought another youngster, Koree Britton, our hooker, was outstanding. His carrying, his defence, was everything you'd expect from a busy hooker.”
In the final game on Sunday, London Irish secured their seventh Aviva Premiership Rugby victory of the season with a thrilling 25-23 triumph over Sale Sharks at the Madejski Stadium.
Despite Sale crossing over twice through Tom Arscott and Mike Haley, the Exiles led 13-10 at the interval after Haley’s fumble gifted Andrew Fenby a try with the final play of the half.
Arscott’s second then gave Sale the lead once more but Alex Lewington scored twice in quick succession to ensure Irish dented the Sharks’ hopes of a top-six finish.
On Saturday, Saracens kept up the pressure on their rivals for an Aviva Premiership Rugby home semi-final with a 22-6 victory over Leicester Tigers at Allianz Park.
Billy Vunipola’s late first-half try gave the hosts a slim 7-6 half-time lead before an early second-half onslaught saw Marcelo Bosch and Chris Wyles both cross over as Leicester failed to add to Freddie Burns’ two penalties.
And despite missing out on a try bonus point, victory ensured Saracens remain second in Aviva Premiership Rugby, while the Tigers dropped down to fifth.
After Harlequins produced a stirring late fightback to down Gloucester Rugby 29-26 at the Stoop, director of rugby David Humphreys admits a lack of discipline cost his side.
The Cherry & Whites led 21-17 late on only for Charlie Sharples to join Ross Moriarty in the sin bin, with Quins taking full advantage thanks to tries from Marland Yarde and Ollie Lindsay-Hague.
Dan Robson added a late consolation try for the visitors but Humphreys was left to rue a frenetic climax that ultimately prevented his side from closing the gap on their opponents.
“In the end, it was probably a little bit of a lack of discipline at the end of the second half that cost us the opportunity to win the game,” he said.
“There was a 20-minute period where nothing really went right for us – with the ball, defending, some indiscipline – and that just gave Harlequins the momentum to come back into the game.”
And on Friday night, Bath Rugby strengthened their grip on an Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final spot with a 29-19 win against Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park.
Ollie Devoto, Semesa Rokoduguni, Anthony Watson and Matt Banahan all went over to secure a bonus point for the visitors, while the Falcons could only reply through Sinoti Sinoti’s sublime try.
London Irish 25 Sale Sharks 23
Tries: Fenby, Lewington 2
Conversions: Noakes 2
Penalties: Noakes 2
Tries: Arscott 2, Haley
Penalties: Cipriani 2
Referee: Greg MacDonald
London Welsh 13 Wasps 40
Tries: Fonua, Elder
Tries: Varndell 3, Johnson, Tagicakibau, Leiua
Conversions: Goode 4, Lozowski
Referee: Greg Garner
Exeter Chiefs 21 Northampton Saints 10
Tries: Dollman, penalty
Penalties: Slade 3
Tries: Wilson, Elliott
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Saracens 22 Leicester Tigers 6
Tries: B Vunipola, Bosch, Wyles
Conversions: Hodgson 2
Penalties: Burns 2
Referee: Matt Carley
Harlequins 29 Gloucester Rugby 26
Tries: Walker, Yarde, Lindsay-Hague
Penalties: Evans 4
Tries: Meakes, Sharples, Robson
Penalties: Laidlaw 3
Referee: Luke Pearce
Newcastle Falcons 19 Bath Rugby 29
Penalties: Clegg 3, Catterick
Tries: Devoto, Rokoduguni, Watson, Banahan
Conversions: Ford 3
Referee: JP Doyle
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