Premiership battle down to final four
April 24, 2009
Wasps' Josh Lewsey in action during his final competitive game before retiring © Getty Images
Bath Rugby 33 - 18 Saracens Harlequins 31 - 12 Newcastle Falcons Leicester Tigers 73 - 3 Bristol Rugby Sale Sharks 24 - 18 Northampton Saints Wasps 34 - 3 Gloucester Rugby Worcester Warriors 15 - 32 London Irish
The semi-final line-up for this season's Guinness Premiership has been confirmed following a dramatic final round of action.
Leicester will play host to Bath and Harlequins are set to take on London Irish in the final four after a dramatic day of action across the country. Sale Sharks and Gloucester also booked their places in the Heineken Cup with 5th and 6th place finished in the table.
The seventh English place in the Heineken Cup will be allocated to either Northampton Saints, Saracens or Worcester Warriors should they win the European Challenge Cup. Should Bourgoin win the European Challenge Cup, London Wasps will take the seventh and final Heineken Cup qualification place due to their seventh place finish in the Guinness Premiership.
Leicester clinched top spot in the table with an 11-try 73-3 rout of relegated Bristol at the Walkers Stadium.
Leicester, who were already guaranteed a home tie, needed only a point to secure first place and wrapped it up with their fourth try after just 31 minutes. With Tom Croft eager to prove a point after his surprise omission from the British and Irish Lions squad and England flanker Lewis Moody back in action after two months out with a broken ankle, it proved to be an embarrassing mismatch.
Fullback Geordan Murphy scored two tries as Leicester piled up the biggest Premiership win of the season. It proved to be a disappointing farewell for Bristol's former England hooker Mark Regan, who came off the bench to play his final game for his home club before retiring.
Any hopes Bristol had of producing an upset quickly disappeared as Sam Vesty and prop Julian White rounded off sustained attacks for tries in the first 10 minutes. Dan Hipkiss, Jordan Crane, Toby Flood, Tom Varndell, Ben Woods, Johne Murphy and Ayoola Erinle also dotted down.
"Bath are a good team and it could have gone either way last time we were here," Cockerill said looking forward to the semi-final. "It will be a typical Leicester-Bath game I have no doubt. But they can have a week off first which helps them. We have got a Heineken Cup semi-final against Cardiff first which is a massive game."
Harlequins were also in rampant mood and took just 29 minutes to score the four tries against Newcastle which ensured them a home draw - eventually winning the game 31-12 to claim second spot in the table.
England No.8 Nick Easter stormed in for the first two inside 17 minutes, while hooker Tani Fuga grabbed the third and fullback Mike Brown clinched the bonus point with 11 minutes still to go until half-time.
Winger Ugo Monye celebrated his call-up to the Lions squad to tour South Africa with their fifth try, a brilliant solo effort in the 38th minute, and fly-half Waisea Luveniyali kicked three conversions.
"The first 30 minutes was something special. We were outstanding and were well worth our four tries," said Quins boss Dean Richards. "The passing and continuity showed the Quins style, which is playing with pace and ambition. We showed everything we are about and have been all season."
London Irish clinched third place after a five-try 32-15 victoryhaul at Worcester. It was not easy for the Exiles as the Warriors put up stern resistence in the first half but were overcome when Irish upped the pace and grabbed a bonus point after the interval.
The Exiles' plan at the start was simple. Two points and they were in the play-offs for the first time in three years regardless of what happened to rivals Sale. Right from the start Worcester were under the cosh and flanker Steffon Armitage rumbled into the home 22, where he set up a sustained attack which ended with wing Sailosi Tagicakibau going over unopposed for a converted try.
Worcester, though, managed to stem the tide and produced a try when scrum-half Matt Powell fed hooker Chris Fortey to crash over and set a simple conversion for fly-half Joe Carlisle.
The Exiles raised their game after the break with No.8 Chris Hala'ufia notching their second touchdown, an old-fashioned pick-up and drive from the back row at an attacking scrum. Scrum-half Paul Hodgson sneaked down the blindside of a ruck for their third and, after a Armitage burst up the middle, the ball found its way to flanker Declan Danaher out wide on the right to rumble over for the bonus-point try.
"Our three goals were simple. They were try and win the European Challenge Cup, be in the top six at Christmas and the top four at the end," said Exiles coach Toby Booth. "So we have achieved two of those three objectives. What are you in this game for? You are in this game not to come second or third, you are in it to win something."
Bath subdued an indisciplined Saracens side to score a 33-18 victory at The Rec. It is 13 years since Bath were last crowned English champions, but they kept their title hopes alive by thwarting the European Challenge Cup semi-finalists.
Fly-half Ryan Davis, Bath's tactical controller in the absence of knee injury victim Butch James, delivered an assured display, booting four penalties and three conversions to deliver a 100% strike-rate. But Saracens did not help themselves, with three players yellow-carded as their hopes of a top-seven Premiership finish evaporated.
Saracens can still qualify for next season's Heineken Cup, but only if they beat Challenge Cup opponents Northampton next Friday night, then defeat Bourgoin or Worcester in the final.
Bath clinched the points when lock Peter Short touched down 17 minutes into the second-half, his try following a first-half try by wing Andrew Higgins, before Matt Banahan claimed a late breakaway score.
Looking ahead to the Tigers showdown, Bath boss Steve Meehan said, "We were at Leicester not so very long ago, and the memory of that game is still very much alive. There is something special about Leicester v Bath, and it is not difficult to get immersed in that history between the clubs".
Sale's play-off bid finally ended after they beat Northampton 24-18 but saw results elsewhere deny them a top-four finish.
The 2006 champions, who were docked a point earlier this week for fielding an ineligible player, claimed a maximum five-point haul to finish the season on 61 points. Yet victories for London Irish, Bath and Harlequins meant Sale's success was immaterial.
Departing captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe scored a try in the first half and the home side claimed three second-half scores through Eifion Roberts, Dean Schofield and a superb effort from Mathew Tait.
However, finishing outside of the play-off places for the third season in succession marked another significant failure for Sale, who bade farewell to outgoing director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre and a number of key players.
"The way the players have played in the last two weeks has been outstanding," enthused Sharks boss Kingsley Jones. "There's been a lot of speculation about people leaving and I think it speaks volumes about the men in the dressing room that they did everything asked of them in the past couple of weeks."
Gloucester finished the season with a whimper as their faint hopes of reaching the play-offs were crushed by Wasps who powered to a 43-3 victory in their clash at Adams Park.
A week after capitulating to Cardiff in the Powergen Cup Final at Twickenham their much-changed side was put to the sword by Wasps, who romped to a bonus-point victory. Riki Flutey crossed twice while Tom Voyce and Simon Shaw also touched down as the champions, who had given up hope of defending their crown long ago, ended the season in positive fashion.
The only sombre note was provided by Danny Cipriani's withdrawal in some discomfort. The England fly-half, who kicked 10 points in a flawless afternoon, hobbled from the pitch at half-time. Josh Lewsey, a Rugby World Cup winner with England, played the 262nd and final game of a trophy-laden 13-year career with the club.
"It's been a very emotional week. Wasps is a very special place and I believe I'd had my best year for six or seven years" said an emotional Lewsey following the game.
Both semi-finals will take place on May 9, with Leicester v Bath kicking off at 3pm at the Walkers Stadium and Harlequins v London Irish at The Stoop at 5.30pm.