Round 18 of the Gallagher Premiership signalled the beginning of the season’s run-in this past weekend, as teams entered the last five games of the regular season.
Leicester Tigers’ hopes of escaping the relegation battle were swiftly ended as Exeter Chiefs put on a 52-20 masterclass of a win at Welford Road, whilst Bristol Bears were able to pick up a losing bonus point in their loss to Bath at Twickenham.
Sale Sharks’ win over Harlequins helped them reel in the Londoners, who were beginning to look comfortable in fourth, in another of the round’s standout fixtures, but how many Sharks made our XV of the week? Check it out below.
- Santiago Cordero, Exeter Chiefs
The full-back spot could have gone a number of different ways, with Luke James, Chris Pennell and Max Malins all putting their hands up for selection. That said, Cordero was in a class of his own on Saturday, consistently weaving his way through and tormenting the Leicester defence. His footwork was exemplary, as was his ability to bring the teammates around him into play, and the boots that Stuart Hogg has to fill next season just keep getting bigger and bigger.
- Jack Nowell, Exeter Chiefs
It was a day for Exeter’s backs to shine on Saturday, as Leicester’s defence had no answer for the slick, high-tempo and well-executed basics of the Chiefs unit. Nowell was his usual busy self and brought positive involvements out wide and in the midfield. He danced his way through would-be Tigers tacklers on a numerous occasions and was always aware of his support. A needless yellow card did blight the performance somewhat, but it was a game that was never in doubt for Exeter.
- Jonathan Joseph, Bath
A strong showing from Joseph, who was key to the composed and clinical performance Bath put in at Twickenham. He was a creative force in the midfield, whether that was as a carrier, passer or kicking threat, whilst his defence was impressive as he made good reads to shut down the space and width that Bristol usually thrive on. Eddie Jones will have been pleased with what he saw, just as he will have enjoyed Henry Slade’s excellent outing at Welford Road later in the day.
Everything good about the Gloucester attack on Sunday seemed to centre around Atkinson. He grabbed a first half hat-trick at Franklin’s Gardens, but his impact went beyond that, with his passing consistently finding holes in the Northampton Saints defence. His chemistry with Danny Cipriani made the Gloucester back line difficult for Saints to track, as the pair linked up fluidly and effectively throughout.
- Jordan Olowofela, Leicester Tigers
In a pretty miserable outing for Leicester, Olowofela did offer somewhat of a silver lining. He was a threat on the counter-attack and on a couple of occasions managed to get the better of Nowell. From a defensive standpoint, much of Exeter’s success actually came on the opposite wing to Olowofela, so he didn’t come off quite as negatively as some of his teammates.
- AJ MacGinty, Sale Sharks
The USA international bagged 23 points on Friday night, as he led his team to a valuable win that erased any lingering concerns about whether or not the club could still get sucked into the relegation battle. He was metronomic with the boot, with all 23 of his points coming from the tee, and it was his lethal accuracy that allowed Sale to take the four points, despite Quins offering more threat with ball in hand. It was a masterclass in game management from MacGinty.
- Danny Care, Harlequins
The scrum-half was a livewire in a losing cause for Harlequins, as his awareness of space shone through at the AJ Bell. His break set up Mike Brown for the first try of the game, whilst a neat kick in behind sent Jack Clifford through for his score. He made two or three other smart kicks that were unlucky not to result in tries and he was only denied a score of his own by some excellent cover defence from opposite number Faf de Klerk.
- Ross Harrison, Sale Sharks
A fine set-piece performance from Harrison, who enjoyed some early success against Kyle Sinckler and held his own well when the inevitable response came from the England tighthead. His impact was telling on defence, too, as he frequently repulsed Quins ball-carriers on the gain-line and did a decent job of slowing down their ball at the breakdown. He played a significant role in not allowing Quins to have a solid platform at any phase.
- Harry Thacker, Bristol Bears
Yet another all-action performance from Bristol’s pocket battleship. Thacker was efficient at the lineout, got through a mountain of work with the ball in his hand and consistently kept Bristol moving forward and/or linking play in the wide channels. The Bears were unusually profligate with the chances and field position that came their way, but Thacker was integral to giving them those opportunities.
- WillGriff John, Sale Sharks
As with Harrison, John was part of a strong Sale scrum that had Harlequins’ number early in the game, before ensuring Sale at least had parity until they departed the pitch late in the second half. He was influential in the loose, too, with powerful forays around the fringes as a carrier and getting through plenty of work eating up Quins’ one-out runners and pick and go attempts.
The Wasps captain led his side into a fast and bright start against Worcester Warriors, but it was in the second and third quarters of the game, when Worcester began to take control, where he really showed his value. His work in defence, in both the power and efficiency of his tackles, as well as the energy and line-speed he brought, helped see off the Warriors’ powerplay and keep Wasps ahead on the scoreboard.
- Chris Vui, Bristol Bears
Vui’s excellent season continues at pace and although Bristol were on the losing side at Twickenham, he, like Thacker, put in an energetic and effective performance in the Bears’ tight five. Almost everything that was said of Thacker applied to Vui, too. He was efficient at the set-piece, he consistently got Bristol moving forward with his carries and was able to link play with his passing, as well.
An enforcer role on the flank, Rhodes was powerful and ruthlessly efficient in the tackle on Saturday afternoon. Newcastle were on top for much of the match against Saracens, but Rhodes delivered a number of momentum-sapping tackles on the Falcons carriers and it was his aggression and energy in defence that allowed Saracens to weather the storm and secure the match late on.
- Nizaam Carr, Wasps
The South African ran rampant against Worcester, with his work as a ball-carrier standing out in particular. He was powerful and incisive enough to break tackles and find the space between defenders, as he shone alongside Brad Shields and Nathan Hughes, all of whom were effective at the Ricoh. Worcester consistently struggled to deny Carr’s offloads, which allowed Wasps to attack a stretched and unorganised defence.
- Zach Mercer, Bath
Fierce competition from Alex Dombrandt, Teimana Harrison and Matt Kvesic, but Mercer was polished and efficient against Bristol. He carried very well in both the wide channels and the tight, he brought line-speed in the defensive line and showed the predatory influence at the breakdown that he has. With Francois Louw and Taulupe Faletau both out, Mercer has become the leader of the Bath back row and seems to be excelling with that responsibility.
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