Rugby union: talking points from the weekend's action

Guardian sport

1) Exeter must rediscover their mojo

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Is it possible to qualify for a semi-final too early? Exeter find themselves killing time between now and 25 May, the date of the Premiership play-offs, a home version of which they secured the round before the round before last. Rob Baxter talked about the “emotion vacuum” the situation had created. Exeter have two rounds to rediscover themselves, after this so-so home win over Harlequins, who could quite easily have won. Everyone else, meanwhile, is scrabbling for their lives. Whoever qualifies will have done so by tooth and nail. Baxter’s fear is that, come the big day, when Exeter try to summon the fury of yore, they may find it is no longer there. Michael Aylwin

Match report: Exeter 17-15 Harlequins

2) Bristol look up while Tigers slide

Pat Lam has maintained from the start of the season that he was aiming high and did not regard avoiding relegation as a mark of success. Bristol’s first Premiership victory at Welford Road, and a season’s double over the Tigers, put them in contention for a top-six finish. They face the side currently occupying sixth, Sale, at Ashton Gate on Friday nightand finish the campaign at Newcastle. They were on the defensive for long periods against a Leicester side who needed to win to secure their Premiership status, but such is their attacking verve that they are capable of quickly turning a match on its head. They had a collective strength and understanding their opponents lacked. The Tigers are likely to survive even if they do not secure a point in their final two games and the planning for next season has already started with their former centre and head coach Pat Howard, who lost his job with Cricket Australia last year, spending a week at the club as part of a strategic review. It will take a bit longer than that. Paul Rees

Match report: Leicester 20-23 Bristol

3) Saints have Biggar things to look forward to

Of Northampton’s 20 Premiership matches this season Dan Biggar has started 15 of them. That is some return for their star fly-half considering his involvement for Wales and increasingly he looks like the signing of last summer. He did not come cheap but he looks a cut above at Premiership level, dovetailing so well with Cobus Reinach to pull teams apart, as was the case against Newcastle on Friday. And he always wants to play, regardless of his international involvement, which cannot be said of all of Wales’s Premiership players in recent years. A large part of that is Chris Boyd’s influence – the way that they set out to play, who wouldn’t want to – and it would be no surprise if Northampton hold on to fourth place. Gerard Meagher

Match report: Newcastle 17-31 Northampton

Team of the weekend

15 Anthony Watson (Bath), 14 Tom Collins (Northampton) 13 Piers O’Conor (Bristol) 12 Ollie Devoto (Exeter) 11 Henry Purdy (Gloucester) 10 Danny Cipriani (Gloucester) 9 Cobus Reinach (Northampton) 1 Joe Marler (Harlequins) 2 Harry Thacker (Bristol) 3 Harry Williams (Exeter) 4 Matt Symons (Harlequins) 5 Darren Barry (Worcester) 6 Maro Itoje (Saracens) 7 Tom Curry (Sale) 8 Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

Earle blow for Quins

Harlequins were unlucky to lose at Exeter where their pack gave the Chiefs scrum a tough afternoon. Quins will be forced to look for a new wing after Nathan Earle damaged an anterior cruciate ligament which may rule him out of next season

Player of the weekend: Tom Curry, Sale

Among the dross of Friday night’s 6-3 win for Sale over Bath, easily the worst Premiership game of the season, was a gem of a display by Sharks’ England flanker whose unremitting ferocity helped keep Bath at arm’s length 

Try of the weekend: Dan Thomas, Leicester v Bristol

The Bristol flanker finished off a flowing move down the right that featured Steve Luatua, Tom Pincus and Piers O’Conor. After recycling the ball the outstanding Harry Thacker gave the Welshman his opportunity Ian Malin

4) Saracens home in on thrilling finale

Saracens all but secured a home draw in the play-offs with an emphatic victory over Wasps, their second success at the Ricoh Arena in a week after the Champions Cup semi-final against Munster. The fact that the league turns into a cup competition to determine the champions renders this weekend’s match against Exeter at Allianz Park almost academic. While the Chiefs want to sharpen their edge, Sarries will be resting players before the following week’s European final against Leinster in Newcastle. It is a downside of the play-off system: what would have been a highlight of the campaign is merely a fixture to be fulfilled, a skirmish before the likely meeting between the sides in the Twickenham final. Wasps, who are at Bath on Sunday, still have a chance of finishing fourth, but the top six is the more realistic target after an underwhelming season. PR

5) Worcester secure their Premiership status

It says everything about this season’s Premiership that Worcester, in 11th place before kick-off, were more than a match for third-placed Gloucester as they secured their Premiership status for another year. At home the Warriors have lost only to Northampton and Exeter since September while also reaching the knockout stages of both the European Challenge Cup and the Premiership Rugby Cup. All they require now is a touch more consistency, as is the case with Gloucester. When Danny Cipriani’s passing is ripping opponents apart they can look irresistible but sustaining their levels of accuracy and concentration for 80 minutes remains the ongoing challenge. Robert Kitson

Match report: Worcester 27-20 Gloucester

6) Wales guaranteed a side in next season’s Champions Cup

Treviso became the first Italian team to qualify for the play-offs after defeating Zebre in Parma and they also made history by securing a place in the Champions Cup on merit. They were third in their conference, pipping the Scarlets and Edinburgh who both lost their derbies to the Dragons and Glasgow respectively. The Scarlets finished fourth after securing two bonus points and will play Ospreys next month in a play-off for the Champions Cup after Edinburgh left Glasgow without a point. It means Wales will have a team in European rugby’s premier club tournament next season and if Leinster win the Champions Cup final against Leinster it could be two. There is a complicated formula for the final place in the tournament, but a Leinster success, together with the Challenge Cup finalists and losing semi-finalists all qualifying through their league positions, would probably mean the play-off loser going through. All four Irish provinces have made the league play-offs, along with Glasgow, who along with Leinster will sit out the quarter-final stage and be at home in the semi-final, and Treviso. PR

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7) Saracens raise the standard in Tyrrells Premier 15s

The Tyrrells Premier 15s may have transformed women’s domestic rugby in England but some things never change. Saracens retained their title in the final in Northampton on Saturday evening but the only surprise was how convincing their defeat of Harlequins was. The challenge now is for other clubs to reach Saracens’ standards and this won’t be easy. Quins were woeful in the first half. It was cold at Franklin’s Gardens and they duly froze. The ridiculous design of their shirts made their numbers unreadable and all of their players, including try-scoring machine Jess Breach, were anonymous for 40 minutes. Their 33-17 defeat looks quite close but in reality it was all over by half-time. Poppy Cleall was a real force at No 8 and Saracens had their version of Storm Hannah in the young England tight-head Hannah Botterman who helped blow Quins away. Cleall said afterwards that Saracens would get better and better and were not at their best for the entire 80 minutes. They look set to dominate this competition for quite some time. Ian Malin

Match report: Saracens 33-17 Harlequins

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