It was probably just as well that Harlequins, London Irish and Bath won comfortably yesterday. Those results meant that the point Sale had had deducted for fielding an ineligible player earlier in the Guinness Premiership's regular season did not, in the end, come to discount them from the play-off picture.
Sale won too yesterday, beating Northampton 24-18, with a bonus point, at Edgeley Park, but they finished the season in fifth place. Assured of Heineken Cup rugby in the autumn, they are still more than a little peeved at their treatment by Premier Rugby's powers that be.
The Sharks trailed the Saints 10-5 at half-time but tries from Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Eifion Roberts, Dean Schofield and Mathew Tait were enough to overhaul Jim Mallinder's Saints, who will now prepare to face Saracens in a European Challenge Cup semi-final on Friday night. Charlie Hodgson kicked two conversions for Sale; Neil Best and Sean Lamont scored Northampton's tries and Stephen Myler kicked two penalties and a conversion.
Leicester's 73-3 thrashing of poor old Bristol at Welford Road confirmed the form that the top-of-the-table Tigers, who have a Heineken Cup semi-final against the Cardiff Blues at the Millennium Stadium next Sunday, have run into at exactly the right stage of the season. They ran in 11 tries to record the biggest Premiership win of the season.
Sam Vesty, Julian White, Dan Hipkiss, Jordan Crane, Geordan Murphy (twice), Toby Flood, Tom Varndell, Ben Woods, Johne Murphy and the Biarritz-bound Ayoola Erinle scored the Tigers' tries. Julien Dupuy kicked four conversions, Geordan Murphy two and Vesty three.
Luke Arscott kicked a penalty for Bristol, who are bound for National League One (or the Championship, or whatever the second tier is going to be called when the Rugby Football Union make up their mind) next season. All concerned said farewell to the visitors' replacement hooker, the England and Lions stalwart Mark Regan, who has, finally, retired. Dan Ward-Smith and David Lemi, the No 8 and wing who are bound for Wasps, and the scrum-half Shaun Perry, who may be off to Brive, were also playing last games for Bristol. None of them, however, made their debut in 1991 like Regan, who came off the bench for his final appearance.
Another 37-year-old former England player, the utility back Mike Catt, came off the bench for London Irish at Worcester. He, however, has no plans to retire; for starters he has a semi-final against Harlequins to think about. His head coach, Toby Booth, said: "I've heard they may move the game to Twickenham, which will be great, as we can bring 20,000 fans."
Yesterday the Exiles beat the Warriors 32-15 at Sixways, thanks to tries from Sailosi Tagicakibau, Chris Hala'Ufia, Paul Hodgson, Declan Danaher and Adam Thompstone. Delon Armitage kicked a penalty and a couple of conversions. Chris Fortey and George Crook scored tries for Worcester, who could book a Heineken Cup place through the European Challenge Cup. Joe Carlisle kicked five points.
Bath slipped into fourth place in the Premiership, and thus booked a play-off trip to Welford Road, after only managing to score three tries in their 33-18 win against Saracens at the Recreation Ground and thus failing to collect a bonus point.
Bath's head coach, Steve Meehan, made the best of it. "We were at Leicester not so very long ago," he said, referring to the Heineken Cup quarter-final at the Walkers Stadium which the Tigers won at the death. "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."
Yesterday, Andrew Higgins, Peter Short and Matt Banahan scored Bath's tries; Chris Wyles and Noah Cato scored for Saracens. Bath's Ryan Davis kicked 18 points to Glen Jackson's eight for Saracens.