Rugby Union: Crucial points by Lax

WORCESTER appear to hold the key to the outcome of Allied Dunbar Premiership Two despite the fact that yesterday's 26-17 defeat at Coventry has dashed their own title aspirations. The ambitious Midlands club have struggled in recent weeks to stay in touch with the division's two pacesetters, Bristol and Rotherham, but over the next two weekends they will take on both sides in matches which will almost certainly decide which club ascends to Premiership One next season.

The gap between Bristol and Rotherham, who each have 40 points with two games remaining (six points clear of third-placed Worcester), has been whittled down to a points difference of less than a try.

The thrilling finale to English rugby's second flight was set up when the leaders Bristol could beat Exeter only 36-17 at the Memorial Ground while Rotherham hammered their visitors Waterloo 44-3. Bristol rattled up six tries against their West Country rivals to establish a points difference of +389. Rotherham, though, went one try better to move to +385 with their wing Dean Lax helping himself to a hat-trick to become the division's leading scorer this season with 17 touchdowns.

Coventry's Adam Smallwood thwarted Worcester's lingering promotion hopes with a brace of tries which were backed up by 16 points from Steve Gough, the division's top points accumulator. In reply, Nick Baxter went over for Worcester, who entertain Rotherham next Saturday and travel to Bristol the following weekend.

Scott Gibbs, whose virtuoso try at Wembley sank England a fortnight ago, crossed again for Swansea in their 34-31 Anglo-Welsh Friendly win at home to London Irish. His Wales team-mate Gareth Thomas was one of Cardiff's try-scorers in their 34-15 victory over London Scottish.

In the Welsh Premier Division play-offs, Julian White was sent off for punching but Bridgend still edged past Caerphilly, who scored four tries, 31-25 with Gareth Cull kicking 26 points. Shane Williams ran in three tries as Neath cashed in on Neil Jenkins' absence due to injury to beat Pontypridd 33-21, and Newport enjoyed a 57-19 romp against Aberavon.

Andrew Mehrtens, the All Blacks' fly-half, went from villain to hero to villain again as Canterbury won 30-28 against Northern Bulls in Pretoria. After missing a late penalty with his side trailing 28-27, he landed an injury-time drop goal and then gestured obscenely to the crowd. Waikato shaded Golden Cats 44-42 in Pukekohe, but in another NZ-SA contest Auckland lost 12-6 at home to Coastal Sharks whose points were kicked by Henry Honiball.

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