Rugby union: talking points from the weekend’s action

Paul Rees, Gerard Meagher and Robert Kitson
Clockwise from top left: Leicester face reflective summer, Exeter exposed Northampton, Harlequins’ Joe Marchant outshone Elliot Daly, and Worcester would do well to mirror Newcastle. Composite: Getty Images; PA

1) Faletau on song to give Lions boost

The chances are that Bath will miss out on the top four unless Leicester make a complete mess of their final game at Worcester. The manner of their 44-20 thrashing of Gloucester merely underlined the up-and-down nature of their season but the good news for the British and Irish Lions is that Taulupe Faletau looks right back in form. The Wales No8 scored a hat-trick of tries and his director of rugby, Todd Blackadder, reckons New Zealand will have their hands full this summer. “All those Lions loose-forwards are absolutely outstanding but they’ll need every single one of them,” predicted Blackadder. “There are a lot of matches before they even get to the Tests. They’ll certainly need the cavalry at some stage.” RK

Bath 44-20 Gloucester

2) Leicester making up the numbers

Leicester used to be the team to beat in the play-offs, but now they are making up the numbers, clinging on to fourth place in a season when they have had three heads of their coaching team. They have been doubled by the three teams above them in their table and their away form in the Champions Cup, in which they suffered three heavy defeats, does not point to an appearance at Twickenham at the end of the month. A one-off occasion has the capacity to surprise, but the perennial play-off contenders reaching the final would be a shock. Like their East Midlands rivals, they face a summer of reflection. PR

Leicester 41-18 Sale

3) Northampton caught between styles

Northampton have failed to make the play-offs for the second consecutive season and their final match of the season at home to Harlequins on Saturday will be a pitch for a Champions Cup place. They have won nine Premiership matches out of 21, doubled by Wasps, Saracens and Leicester with their only victory against a side in the top four secured against the Chiefs in September: four of their wins came against the bottom two sides. Jim Mallinder said at the end of last season that there would be a change of emphasis tactically but, like Wales, they are stuck between the past and the present. PR

Exeter 36-12 Northampton

Dylan Hartley, centre, and his Northampton Saints team-mates in discussion after another Exeter score. Photograph: Harry Trump/Getty Images

4) Marchant catches the eye to outshine Daly

Having watched Nick Tompkins’ significant contributions to Saracens’ bonus-point win against Bristol it became increasingly puzzling as to why he is not touring Argentina this summer. The answer however, surely came 24 hours previously with Joe Marchant’s performance for Harlequins against Wasps. Marchant’s late try, which put the seal on Harlequins’ victory, was fully deserved after another eye-catching 80 minutes from the outside-centre. All the more impressive, he outshone his opposite number Elliot Daly, who had a particularly off evening. It may have just been a blip but it will concern Warren Gatland nonetheless. A number of players heavily involved during the Six Nations are already beginning to look like they have had long seasons. GM

Harlequins 32-13 Wasps

5) Bristol continue to be undone by lack of cut and thrust

With the greatest respect to Bristol, however poor Saracens were on Saturday, an upset never felt like a genuine possibility. That they could not quite hold out to deny Saracens the bonus point will be all the more galling for Mark Tainton, whose side led 9-3 at half-time. They had that advantage at the break thanks to three penalties from Gavin Henson – none of them straightforward but all of them straight through the posts. The last time Bristol won in the Premiership, back in February, Henson also kicked all of their points but as Tainton said afterwards, to win Premiership matches you have to score tries and Bristol simply do not have enough cutting edge about them. GM

Saracens 27-9 Bristol

Saracens’ Chris Ashton is tackled by Gavin Henson before having his try disallowed. Photograph: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

6) London Irish are in the play-offs driving seat

The Championship play-offs will not happen next year with the regular season league winners going up instead. With Ealing Trailfinders and Doncaster both involved in the semis despite declining to put themselves forward for promotion, the existing system had become seriously flawed and London Irish look increasingly odds on to replace Bristol regardless. Their 35-3 win at Doncaster gives them a virtually impregnable lead in the two-leg tie, although Yorkshire Carnegie also scored a convincing 34-16 victory at Ealing. RK

7) Worcester should try to match Newcastle’s ambition

The cumulative scoreline for the two fixtures between Newcastle and Worcester reads 25-25 – an apt tie considering how evenly matched they are. A quick glance at the table however shows that while Worcester have been looking over their shoulders, or were at least until a surprise victory over Saracens during the Six Nations, Newcastle have been looking upwards. With London Irish expected to clinch promotion this season, and Bristol tipped to return much stronger the following year, Worcester need to follow the lead of the Falcons and set their sights higher than just staying in the division. GM

8) Ospreys close in on Pro-12 play-offs

Ospreys’ 24-10 win over Ulster has virtually ensured the Welsh region’s place in the play-offs alongside Leinster, Munster and the Scarlets. Last year’s champions Connacht and the Cardiff Blues, meanwhile, are set to enter the European Champions’ Cup qualification play-offs alongside the seventh placed sides in the Top 14 and the English Premiership respectively. Gloucester could secure the latter English slot if they defeat Stade Français in Friday week’s Challenge Cup final. RK

Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar flicks the ball off the turf during their 24-10 defeat to Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Photograph: Paul Jenkins/ActionPlus via Getty Images

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