Richard Cockerill knows knockout rugby as well as anyone in Aviva Premiership Rugby – and the Leicester Tigers director of rugby insists the pressure is off his side as they head into a semi-final clash with Bath Rugby, secured in a dramatic final weekend of regular season action.
The Tigers sealed their spot at the Rec next Saturday by virtue of a 22-14 victory over East Midlands rivals Northampton Saints, Jordan Crane and Niall Morris scoring the crucial tries.
An alternative-looking Saints side led by a point at the break thanks to James Wilson’s boot, but they were overpowered in the scrum after the break – Tom Stephenson’s late try proving a consolation.
And with their run of consecutive semi-finals now stretched to 11, Cockerill hopes his side can continue their recent successes.
“This year has been one of our most difficult since I have been here,” he admitted.
“To finally get there, we’ve been through a lot as a team but we have stayed together, got stuck in every day in training and we are in the play-offs.
“We have some momentum now playing the best we’ve played all season, and we will go down there and play to win.
“I am not sure I enjoyed today too much. Saints made us work really hard, we probably didn’t play as well as we would have liked but it was job done.”
While Leicester move into the end-of-season lottery, Exeter Chiefs fell agonisingly short of their first ever Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final, despite recording a comprehensive win against Sale Sharks.
Winger Matt Jess notched a pair of scores, while Jack Nowell, Ian Whitten, Henry Slade, Ben White and Byron McGuigan got their names on the scoresheet as the Chiefs looked to put enough points on the board to secure a top four spot.
Josh Beaumont crossed twice for the visitors as Exeter’s efforts proved to be in vain – although Rob Baxter insists the future is bright at Sandy Park despite the immediate disappointment.
“We’ve got a fantastic season ahead of us next year, the Premiership is a fantastic competition and getting better all the time,” he said.
“We are back in the top tier of European competition and there will be 25 weeks on the bounce where we will be involved in the Premiership or Europe – and that is great.
“It’s going to be massively exciting and I’m looking forward to a break, but also to getting back in and seeing what we can do next year.”
Bad news for the Chiefs was great news for Saracens, as Mark McCall’s men clinched the final semi-final spot – and a trip to reigning Aviva Premiership Rugby champions Northampton Saints – by recording a ten-try triumph at London Welsh.
Chris Ashton bagged four of the scores and secured the fastest hat-trick in the league’s history in the process, while Billy and Mako Vunipola were among the other Sarries stars to pick up a five-pointer.
The winner of the Saracens – Northampton clash may be meeting Bath at Twickenham on May 30, with Mike Ford’s men warming up for next week’s showdown with the Tigers by enjoying a 50-30 West Country derby win over Gloucester.
On an afternoon littered with tries, they notched seven of their own, leading Mike Ford to reflect on a successful campaign that he hopes is still a way from being over.
“Last year we were one point off getting fourth place. This year we’re one point off top,” the Bath head coach said.
“I know we conceded 30 points and there was a bit of an end-of-season, nothing-at-stake feel to the game, but looking at the 22 matches, it’s been a great season.
“It’s a fantastic position for us to be in, playing Leicester at home with a fully fit squad. We can’t wait.”
Elsewhere, London Irish and Wasps were a point apiece off equalling the record high for an Aviva Premiership Rugby draw, the 40-40 thriller at the Madejski narrowly falling short of the 41-41 stalemate between Leicester Tigers and Gloucester from 2011.
The Exiles led at the break, but they were indebted to Andy Short’s last-gasp effort to secure the draw – a result that secured Wasps a sixth-placed finish and a spot in the European Rugby Champions Cup for next season.
And Newcastle Falcons ended their campaign with a first win in four months, Mike Blair and Andy Saull both touching down on their final appearance at Kingston Park in a 37-21 success against Harlequins.
It was a fitting time for the Falcons to return to winning ways after a hiatus stretching back to January 11, Marland Yarde and Nick Evans’ tries not enough for the defeated visitors.
Leicester Tigers 22 Northampton Saints 14
Tries: Crane, Morris
Penalties: Burns (3), Bell
Penalties: Wilson (3)
Referee: Matt Carley
Exeter Chiefs 44 Sale Sharks 16
Tries: Jess 2, Nowell, Whitten, Slade, White, McGuigan
Conversions: Steenson 3
Tries: Beaumont 2
Penalties: Cipriani 2
Referee: Wayne Barnes
London Welsh 17 Saracens 68
Tries: Reynolds, Elder
Conversions: Elder 2
Tries: B Vunipola, Strettle, M Vunipola, Ashton 4, Goode, Figallo, Hodgson
Conversions: Farrell 9
Referee: Luke Pearce
Bath Rugby 50 Gloucester Rugby 30
Tries: Eastmond, Ford, Burgess, Devoto, Watson, Rokoduguni, Agulla
Conversions: Ford 4, Homer 2
Tries: Ludlow, McColl 2, Robson
Conversions: A Thomas 2
Penalties: A Thomas 2
Referee: Dean Richards
London Irish 40 Wasps 40
Tries: Fenby, Lewington, Noakes, J Short, A Short
Conversions: Geraghty 3
Penalties: Geraghty 3
Tries: Thompson, Tagicakibau 2, Miller, Haskell
Conversions: Goode 3
Penalties: Goode 3
Referee: JP Doyle
Newcastle Falcons 37 Harlequins 21
Tries: Mayhew, Lawson, Blair, Powell, Saull
Conversions: Catterick 3
Penalties: Catterick 2
Tries: Evans, Yarde
Penalties: Evans 3
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