Worcester missed a chance to guarantee GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP survival at the Madejski Stadium – and this season’s relegation scrap is now destined for a nerve-shredding climax.
Warriors will go into the Premiership’s final day of regular season action on April 28 one point above bottom club Northampton.
A Worcester win against Sixways visitors Saracens will send Northampton – European champions just seven years ago – plummeting into National League One unless Saints record a landslide success against London Irish at Franklin’s Gardens on the same afternoon.
But if Worcester lose and Saints defeat Irish by any margin, then the midlands club’s three-year stay in the top flight will be over.
Worcester led Irish 13-12 early in the second period, but Exiles wing Sailosi Tagicakibau’s second try meant no way back for the visitors, who claimed a touchdown by scrum-half Matt Powell and 11 points from full-back Shane Drahm.
Irish hooker Robbie Russell and lock Bob Casey also crossed, while centre Nils Mordt slotted three conversions to ultimately keep Worcester at a safe distance.
The Warriors produced a wonderfully committed display, yet their lack of try-scoring firepower was again highlighted.
Given play-off contenders Saracens’ current blistering form, Worcester will go into their final game as second favourites, and the odds now appear to be slightly in Northampton’s favour.
Worcester went into battle knowing a maximum points haul would secure Premiership safety, but they were without suspended lock Craig Gillies, which meant Will Bowley forging a youthful second-row partnership alongside Richard Blaze.
Irish, still striving for a top-six finish, bade a Madejski Stadium farewell to departing trio Justin Bishop, Barry Everitt and Neal Hatley, but injuries sidelined England backs Mike Catt and Shane Geraghty.
Conditions were perfect for a feast of attacking rugby, and Irish made all the early running, monopolising possession as powerful centre Seilala Mapusua made himself an imposing midfield target.
Irish were determined to put pace on the ball, leaving Worcester at times requiring some last-ditch defensive work, but Warriors cracked on 13 minutes when Mapusua floated out a defence-splitting pass that gave Tagicakibau a simple run-in.
Worcester adopted more of a route-one approach, yet their perseverance paid off seven minutes later following a sustained spell of pressure.
Skipper Pat Sanderson and hooker Aleki Lutui both made powerful surges towards the Irish line, and although a brilliant Mapusua tackle held up Lutui, Worcester secured a sufficient territorial foothold for Powell to cross.
Drahm’s successful conversion edged the visitors ahead, with Irish losing their early fizz and finding themselves immersed in an attritional encounter as Worcester’s heavyweight forwards threatened to boss the critical breakdown area.
Irish knew they had to re-establish a foothold in the game, but they delivered six minutes before half-time when powerful driving play by the forwards enabled Russell to administer a scoring touch from close-range.
Mordt took over the kicking duties from Flutey, and he enjoyed immediate success, rifling an angled conversion attempt between the posts for a 12-7 lead before Russell limped off.
A Drahm penalty closed the gap before as half-time approached, setting up a tense second period with Worcester still in control of their Premiership destiny.
Drahm’s 42nd-minute penalty regained the lead for Worcester, yet they were immediately forced into defensive mode when Tagicakibau and full-back Topsy Ojo made menacing breaks that stretched the visitors.
Worcester’s resilience though, could not be questioned, and with Sanderson driving them forward at every opportunity, the Warriors were good value for their narrow advantage.
Irish, playing in patches rather than reproducing their early sustained excellence, went back in front through Tagicakibau’s second try which was created by Flutey’s stunning pass, but even though Mordt converted, Worcester remained in bonus-point range.
Drahm completed his penalty hat-trick 13 minutes from time, cutting the deficit to 19-16, but Irish secured a bonus-point triumph when skipper Casey ploughed over seven minutes from time.