Reigning champions Exeter made sure they would finish top in the regular-season English Premiership table on Saturday as London Irish‘s long-awaited relegation was confirmed without the Exiles taking the field.
But the English title is decided by play-offs, the top four contesting two play-off semi-finals with the winners going forward to a Twickenham final for the right to be crowned Premiership champions.
This was the first time that southwest side Exeter had finished top of the Premiership standings, but forwards coach Rob Hunter was quick to put the achievement in context.
“It’s really nice to finish top but we don’t get anything for it and it’s only good for a week as it will be back to the drawing board ahead of the play-offs,” he said.
Exeter’s tries came from Nic White, Jack Yeandle, Greg Holmes and Lachie Turner with Joe Simmonds converting the first three tries and a penalty.
Exeter Chiefs finish top of England's regular season pile for the first time, having already won the Anglo-Welsh Cup and with the A league final next up on Monday. They remain one of the most remarkable stories anywhere in British sport. https://t.co/OwQENufTfX— robert kitson (@robkitson) April 28, 2018
Elsewhere Worcester boss Alan Solomons was left bemoaning his side’s maddening inconsistency after they swept aside Harlequins 44-13 to maintain top-flight Rugby next season.
The four tries the Midlands club scored in the first half alone were enough to secure the bonus point that sent London Irish, long at the bottom of the table, into the second-tier Championship.
Worcester ran in seven tries in total, centre Jackson Willison grabbing two while wing Bryce Heem, lock Darren Barry, England centre Ben Te’o, scrum-half Francois Hougaard and replacement Jamie Shillcock also crossed Quins’ line.
Yet it said something about Worcester’s season that even with this thumping win they remained 11th in a 12-team Premiership where only the bottom club at the end of the season gets relegated.
Confirmation of @FalconsRugby spot in the semi-finals 💪 after wins for @ExeterChiefs, @bathrugby and @WorcsWarriors this afternoon.— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) April 28, 2018
Here's how the #AvivaPrem #LeagueTable looks with two more games to go in Round 2⃣1⃣ tomorrow 👍 pic.twitter.com/DPu2SCRx2o
“I am overjoyed that we have sealed our place next year in the Premiership,” said veteran South African coach Solomons.
“What I found is just the inconsistency of the team,” he added. “Throughout the time I have been here since mid-October, we have beaten Exeter away, we’ve beaten Gloucester, beaten Leicester away, we got four tries against Sarries and I think we have played some super games.
“But what we haven’t done is be consistent enough…That is something we need to address next season and it will be addressed next season.”
Solomons praised the contribution of former Ireland lock Donncha O’Callaghan, who marked his final match before retirement by captaining Worcester against Quins.
“He is such a nice guy and what a way to finish. He has all his family here.”
Meanwhile, O’Callaghan added: “I have been lucky to be part of successful teams but I have seen another side of Rugby with one down the other end.
“It has been enjoyable and I’ve made some incredible friends.”
Saturday’s other Premiership match saw Bath overpower west country rivals Gloucester 43-20.
The win kept Bath in the hunt for European Champions Cup qualification, although they still need other results to go their way.
“It just showed when the mindset is right what a difference it can make,” said Bath coach Todd Blackadder.
He came into the game contemplating retirement, but Matt Mills admits he may prolong his playing career after making an impact during his international debut on Friday night.
The Dubai Exiles flanker can now count himself among a select few who have represented the UAE at rugby – the schoolteacher started as Apollo Perelini’s side beat Gibraltar 28-15 in their only match of a curtailed 2017/18 calendar at Dubai Sports City.
Mills is just 29 but admits his body has been battered and bruised and left him feeling “more like a 50-year-old” during a career that brought him to the Emirates three years ago, where he is a now a PE teacher at Dubai English Speaking College.
Exiles returned to prominence this season, lifting the Gulf Men’s League title at the Dubai Sevens for the first time in 11 years in December, while they crowned their comeback campaign with the UAE Premiership trophy two weeks ago, beating Abu Dhabi Harlequins on the same field that Gibraltar were overcome on Friday.
All-action Mills would have seen more combat than most as part of Exiles’ formidable forward pack.
But he joked that if ever there was a reason to postpone a decision on hanging up his boots – earning the man-of-the-match accolade on his UAE debut as well as the promise of a first official cap in a year’s time could sway him.
“The match was very stop-start but played at a high intensity. It was great to play with some of the boys that I’ve had to tackle all season,” said Northampton native Mills.
“I think UAE rugby has taken a step up and is making the right moves towards where we want to be. Getting man of the match for the UAE on debut was a nice touch too.”
Victory against unranked Gibraltar required a lot of exertion on a muggy evening from a hugely talented yet very new-look UAE squad – of which Mills was one of seven Exiles.
All four of the UAE’s tries were scored by Exiles players – Gio Fourie, Durandt Gerber, Jaen Botes and Thinus Steyn crossing. Mills put in an understated but brilliant performance, setting up Steyn for the try of the match late in the contest that killed the visitors off.
Victory was bittersweet for the hosts, with Perelini putting together arguably the most talented squad of his tenure, and possibly the best UAE squad ever since they played their first international as a nation in 2011.
It came in a year in which they pulled out of playing in Division I of the Asia Rugby Championship – alongside the Philippines, Singapore and Sri Lanka in Manila in June – for as yet unexplained reasons.
It left Perelini scratching around for some meaningful fixtures at late notice for his squad, with the game against unranked opposition meaning it did not count as an official Test, so no caps were on offer for the players.
However, with the UAE Barbarians – essentially a team packed with potential future internationals approaching the three-year residency status – swatting aside a Gibraltar Development XV 64-0 on Thursday night, the future on the field looks bright for the nation ranked 70th in the world.
And with a possible return to Asia’s top table in 2019, Mills hopes to remain a part of the international picture.
“The man of the match and the debut, it means a lot,” admitted Mills.
“I’m looking forward to next year, if I haven’t retired by then. I’m sure a few more seasons won’t hurt. I hope there is a return to Asia competition, UAE rugby needs it if it’s going to keep moving in the right direction.
“Lots of my students and lads I coach were watching on Friday so it was nice to set an example and hopefully I’ll see some of them wearing the jersey soon.”
The UAE rugby community has rallied round in support of a stricken RAK Rugby player who was left in a very serious condition following a tackle at the season-ending Sharjah 10s tournament on Friday.
It was an abrupt end to the final domestic tournament of the UAE rugby season, with the famous competition abandoned after the RAK vets player was taken to hospital after suffering an in-game injury.
The player reportedly had to be resuscitated on the pitch at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club and is currently being treated in a local hospital.
The club released a statement on its Facebook page on Saturday, saying: “On Friday 27th April, while participating in a game of rugby at a tournament in Sharjah, a player suffered a serious injury.
“The club is currently in contact with the player’s family and officials and is unable to provide any further comment for the time being.
“The club shall issue further statements as soon as it is able. In the meantime, the thoughts and hearts of the club and its members go out to the player and his family.”
RAK RUGBY STATEMENT— RAK Rugby (@RAKRugby) 28 April 2018
On Friday 27th April, while participating in a game of rugby at a tournament in Sharjah, a player suffered a serious injury. The Club is currently in contact with the player's family and officials and is unable to provide any further comment at this time.
There was an outpouring of support and well wishers from clubs around the UAE in reaction to the club’s release, with tournament organisers Sharjah saying: “From everyone at Sharjah, our thoughts are with the player, his family and RAK Rugby. Sharjah are here to help in any way we can.”
Abu Dhabi Saracens chairman Jake Basson said: “Abu Dhabi Saracens Rugby Club have you, your family and the RAK family in our prayers. We wish you a speedy recovery. If there is anything we can do to assist, please do not hesitate to ask.”
Shads Palmer added: “RAK Rugby – the Hurricanes Rugby family are standing side by side with you in wishing for a positive outcome. We stand by for any support required – reach out if needed.”