Rugby union: talking points from the Premiership’s weekend action

Guardian sport

1) Bristol and Saracens return to the bad old days

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One topic did rather dominate the conversation at Ashton Gate. And the booing. This looks as if it will be a new reality for Billy Vunipola, which may or may not come to affect his game over the coming weeks. He has always come across as something of a happy-go-lucky guy but the No 8 will need the ruthless focus of his England teammate Owen Farrell if recent events and any future repercussions are not to distract him from his day job. One other point did muscle its way into the talking – and that was the kicking. As if chastened by their profligacy the week before, Bristol kicked and kicked and kicked. As did Saracens. This was a trip back to the bad old days in more ways than one. Michael Aylwin

• Match report: Bristol 23-21 Saracens

2) Wasps’ wild win the mark of a helter-skelter league

There is an argument that, in terms of consistent quality, this has not been a vintage Premiership season: three of the league’s top four sides were beaten at the weekend and with three regular-season games left, just 10 points separate the fifth-placed team from the club in 11th. No one could ever accuse the Premiership of being dull, however, with Wasps’ first away win at Sandy Park in 10 attempts not remotely on the cards when they trailed 12-0 after half an hour. It further underlines the growing importance of momentum in top-level rugby; once Exeter lost their grip – as with England against Scotland last month – they struggled to find a way back. Wasps fully deserved this success but the real challenge will be backing it up against Saracens on Saturday week. Robert Kitson

• Match report: Exeter 19-26 Wasps

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3) Mostert and Friel give Gloucester more sinew

Gloucester are two points away from their first play-off appearance for eight years, closer to Saracens in second than they are to Harlequins in fourth. Only Northampton could thwart the Cherry and Whites who have gained consistency under Johan Ackermann. The win against Bath was their sixth in seven league games, and they overcame an early 17-point deficit to clinch the match in the final quarter. They have more sinew at forward through Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel, backed up by Ed Slater and Ruan Ackermann, while Ben Morgan is rolling back the years at No 8. Another difference is Danny Cipriani, the master of invention who pickpockets defenders. He has become more patient with age, waiting for his moment rather than forcing it. A trip to Saracens beckons in the play-offs, not Cipriani’s favourite ground but at least he will have a proper pack in front of him. Paul Rees

• Match report: Gloucester 27-23 Bath

Danny Cipriani was one again Gloucester’s master of invention in the victory over Bath.
Danny Cipriani was one again Gloucester’s master of invention in the victory over Bath.

Danny Cipriani was once again Gloucester’s master of invention in the victory over Bath. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

4) Boyd’s faith in young talent reaps rewards for Northampton

Northampton’s last-gasp victory at Harlequins was not only a testament to perseverance but to faith in youth demonstrated by the director of rugby, Chris Boyd. The try-scoring hero was Alex Mitchell, 21, while the conversion was slotted by James Grayson, 20. On top of that James Fish, Lewis Ludlam, George Furbank, Rory Hutchinson and Fraser Dingwall – all of whom are 23 or younger – have seen plenty of game time this season. A lot of those are backs and prospering under the tutelage of the attack coach, Sam Vesty. “He has been great,” Mitchell said. “He doesn’t just tell us to chuck the ball around but to play how we want to play. We are all natural rugby players, we just want to play what we see. He is great at pushing that forward.” Gerard Meagher

• Match report: Harlequins 19-20 Northampton

5) Thompson at the heart of Tigers’ heroics

Heaven knows Leicester have learned to lower their sights in recent times but rarely has a victory meant so much. The Tigers, awful for so much of this season, defended like demons in the closing stages with Newcastle camped on their line. Guy Thompson, whose delightful assist for Jonny May’s opener and second-half double laid the platform for victory, won a vital turnover at the end to confirm the win. The Leicester playmaker George Ford was honest enough to admit that “the feeling is one of relief rather than happiness I’m really proud of the boys for the fight we showed at the end when it could have gone either way.” With three games remaining, Newcastle are seven points adrift of safety and relegation would spark a likely exodus of key men like Mark Wilson and possibly even Dean Richards, the director of rugby. Ross Heppenstall

• Match report: Newcastle 22-27 Leicester

Guy Thompson scores one of his two tries in Leicester’s win at Newcastle.
Guy Thompson scores one of his two tries in Leicester’s win at Newcastle.

Guy Thompson scores one of his two tries in Leicester’s win at Newcastle. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

6) Adams hat-trick helps Worcester towards safety

A thumping win for Worcester has all but sealed their safety with Newcastle now seven points below them at the foot of the table. On Saturday Josh Adams helped himself to a hat-trick against a Sale side seemingly intent on proving right their director of rugby, Steve Diamond, who insisted last week that they were not good enough for the top four. Adams will be missed when he heads back to Wales next season, having scored 38 tries in 62 appearances for Worcester. Another wing Bryce Heem is also off in the summer and he, too, will be hard to replace at Sixways. It may feel premature in the extreme to start thinking about Worcester’s survival prospects for next season but it will not get any easier considering the amount of money London Irish have been spending. Gerard Meagher

Sore luck for Burns

Freddie Burns kicked a drop goal on the turn to extend Bath’s lead at Gloucester on the hour, then limped off. Within a minute, the home side took the lead for the first time and held on. The fly-half, making his first start for more than four months, was forced off by compartment syndrome, something he has battled throughout his career. “It causes my calves to cramp up,” he said. “I have tried everything but nothing has worked.” 

O’Shea out, Smith in?

Conor O’Shea’s contract with Italy runs until after next year’s Six Nations but the Pro14 side the Cheetahs claim their coach, Franco Smith, has been offered the job from next January. The former South Africa fly-half, who won nine caps, finished his playing career in Italy in 2006 and his second coaching job was with Treviso, where he spent six years. 

Try of the weekend

Jonny May 


Guy Thompson has been one of the few Leicester players to live up to reputation this season. Playing out of position at No 8 on Friday night in the crucial relegation battle at Newcastle, he scored two tries and set up the opener for May on the right wing with a timely appearance in the line and a defence-killing pass out of the back of his hand. The England wing made no mistake as the Tigers eased their relegation fears for the moment at least. 

Team of the weekend

15 Mat Protheroe Bristol 

14 Jonny May Leicester 

13 Rory Hutchinson Northampton

12 Gaby Lovobalavu Wasps 

11 Ruaridh McConnochi Bath

10 Danny Cipriani Gloucester 

9 Tane Takulua Newcastle

1 Zurabi Zhvania Wasps

2 Neil Annett Worcester

3 John Afoa Bristol

4 Ed Slater  Gloucester 

5 Chris Vui Bristol

6 Marco Mama Worcester

7 Guy Thompson Leicester 

8 Nathan Hughes Wasps

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