Northampton boss Jim Mallinder hailed “a big win” for his team after Saints secured a place in this season’s Aviva Premiership play-offs by beating title rivals Saracens 25- 20 in Milton Keynes.
Fly-half Stephen Myler kicked six penalties and converted Samu Manoa’s try for a 20-point haul to thwart Saracens, who struck early with two Chris Wyles tries, while Charlie Hodgson booted two penalties and two conversions.
Saints, who still have bottom club London Welsh to play at home, also remain on course for a home semi-final, and a comeback win from 14-6 adrift said everything about their character.
Saracens, though, did not quite have enough in the tank after their narrow European Champions Cup semi-final loss to Clermont Auvergne in France last Saturday, but they should still join Northampton in next month’s Premiership knockout phase.
Mark McCall tells @5liveSport that Billy Vunipola has rolled his ankle and they won’t know for a few days how serious it is.
— Ed Marriage (@elmrugby) April 25, 2015
And they must also hope that injuries to back-row forwards Billy Vunipola (ankle) and Jackson Wray (concussion) are not long-term after they both went off during the opening 40 minutes.
“It is a big win,” said Mallinder. “Saracens disrupted our set-piece – the lineout didn’t function quite as well as it normally does – but we managed to keep in the game and Stephen Myler kicked his goals.
“Stephen gets man-of-the-match in a lot of the big games. You need someone as reliable as him who can kick the goals in big pressure situations and can run the team.”
Elsewhere, Leicester Tigers boosted their hopes of a top-four finish with a workmanlike bonus point 38-17 win at home to the Aviva Premiership whipping boys London Welsh, who finished the game with 14 men.
Leicester fought back from a shock 10-7 half time deficit to score 31 points in a one sided second half against the relegated Welsh who had number eight Chris Hala‘ufia sent off for a bad tackle and foul play.
Captain Ben Youngs scored Leicester’s first try in the third minute and five more followed after the interval from Laurence Pearce (two), Sam Harrison, Jamie Gibson, and Tom Youngs. London Welsh’s tries came from Koree Britton and Opeti Fonua.
Harlequins’ director of rugby Conor O’Shea announced Joe Marler has been ruled out for the rest of the season after suffering a shoulder injury but his World Cup aspirations are not in doubt.
Marler was initially named to start against Sale, a game Harlequins won 25-23, but was pulled out of the squad and O’Shea admitted that he could need an operation.
“It’s not a worry for the World Cup,” he said. “Will he be fit for the rest of the season? No. But will he be fine for the (England) training camps? Yes.”
England centre Brad Barritt says that Saracens will use their European Champions Cup semi-final heartache as “a galvanising force” during the domestic season run-in.
Seven days after bowing out of Europe following a gripping clash against French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne in Saint-Etienne, Saracens head to Milton Keynes today for an appointment with long-time Premiership leaders Northampton at stadium:mk.
Victory for Saints would confirm qualification for next month’s title play-offs, but Saracens can move to within striking distance of Northampton if they claim only a second win from the last six Premiership starts against their fierce rivals.
“This group is extremely ambitious,” said Barritt, who signed a new long-term contract with Saracens earlier this week. “And we have used last weekend’s disappointment as a galvanising force for the rest of the season.
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) April 24, 2015
“There is obviously a Premiership title to play for, and it starts this Saturday against Northampton, who are formidable opponents. We relish the challenge, and we are looking to bounce back after last Saturday’s result.”
Meanwhile, Leicester, one place and three points outside the playoff zone, could climb back into the top four if they claim an expected five-point maximum against hapless Welford Road visitors London Welsh today.
And seventh-placed Sale Sharks can afford no slip-ups against AJ Bell Stadium visitors Harlequins if they want to keep the heat on topsix rivals Wasps.
Elsewhere today, Gloucester host Newcastle, while tomorrow’s Premiership action sees a key clash between Wasps and Exeter.
Australia fly-half Quade Cooper has signed a two-year contract to play for Top 14 champions Toulon.
Capped 52 times by the Wallabies, the 27-year-old Cooper will join his new teammates during the summer to prepare for the 2015-16 season.
In particular he will link up with former Australia playmaker Matt Giteau, who has been instrumental in guiding the French club to this season’s European Champions Cup final.
— Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 24, 2015
The wealthy Cote d’Azur side are currently seeking a second straight Top 14 and European Cup double.
“He has been a player we have been keeping an eye on for several years now, and would have arguably been rated the best player in the world after the last World Cup were it not for injury,” said Toulon chairman Mourad Boudjellal.
“At 27-years-old, he is coming to Toulon to become the player that the whole world wants to see.”
Cooper is currently playing for the Queensland Reds, but he broke a shoulder blade earlier this month and will be out of action for up to two months.
Earlier this week, the Australian Rugby Union announced a major change to its Test squad selection policy five months before the World Cup, opening the door to foreign-based players being selected.
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) April 24, 2015
He becomes the latest Australia international to announce they are moving abroad after this year’s World Cup, following establised Test players like Will Genia, James Horwill and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Meanwhile, Top 14 leading duo Toulon and Clermont return to domestic duties today with one eye on their European Champions Cup final on May 2.
Leaders Toulon and second-placed Clermont play La Rochelle and Castres respectively, but face the dilemma of choosing between much needed points to secure a semi-final play-off spot and the desire to rest players.
“Obviously, we are thinking about next week,” admitted Clermont lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, who is one of the 12 players who will be given a break.
Elsewhere, second-bottom Bayonne, who have won just once in their last four games, host Grenoble today desperately looking for a win to preserve their hopes of Top 14 rugby next season.
Fellow strugglers Lyon, sitting at the bottom of the table seven points behind Bayonne, face Bordeaux-Begles.
Meanwhile, Montpellier head to Brive looking for a win to boost their chances of competing in the play-offs while Racing Metro, fourth, go head-to-head with sixth-ranked Oyonnax.