Saints and Chiefs book final places
July 30, 2010
Andrew Higgins returned to the Premiership stage in Exeter's colours © Getty Images
Northampton and Exeter saw off the challenge of Bath and Gloucester at Franklin's Gardens to secure the last two places in the JP Morgan Premiership Rugby Sevens Series Final.
The reward for the Saints and the Chiefs is a place alongside Harlequins, Saracens, Sale, and Newcastle at The Rec next Friday when the destiny of the inaugural title will be decided. Northampton booked their passage with three victories over their Premiership rivals but they were pushed all the way by Exeter who were making their debut as a Premiership side having gained promotion from the Championship last season.
The Saints benefitted from the inclusion of England Sevens squad players John Brake, James Rodwell and Tom Powell in their squad as guest players but Exeter more than held their own with the likes of Garrick Cowley, Josh Matavesi and Andrew Higgins - returning to the game for the first time following a nine-month ban for missing a drugs test - firing their challenge.
Hosts Northampton kicked the evening off with a narrow 17-12 victory over Gloucester to put them on course for the Series finale. Northampton's Jamie Elliott opened the scoring with a smart outside break that took full advantage of some lazy Gloucester defending. The Saints had to work hard in defence to preserve their lead with Brake catching the eye but they could not stop Tim Stevenson putting Jake Carter away for Gloucester's first try. And they had the lead on the stroke of the half-time with Dan Robson darting up the touchline from a scrum before kicking ahead and winning the race to touch the ball down.
A yellow card handed Northampton a timely advantage after the break and James Rodwell was the first to capitalise with an injection of pace carrying him over for a score under the posts with the conversion levelling the scores. Gloucester rallied well and pushed hard for a reply but Northampton conjured a turnover care of an unseen knock-on and the ball was worked wide to Simon Hunt who ran the length of the field to touch down in the corner for the match-winning score.
Exeter also made a lively start in their competition bow with a 26-5 victory over a lacklustre Bath. The Chiefs' impressive industry was eventually rewarded with a try for Irishman Paul McKenzie and they stretched their deserved lead just before the break with Fijian international Matavesi strolling over for his side's second score. Bath stepped up their game after the re-start and a well-worked cross-kick found Nick Scott on his own and he claimed a simple score. But some sparkling handling from the Chiefs heaped woe on Bath with Cowley starting and finishing an excellent move that resulted in their third try. But they weren't finished with a second try from Cowley following a scrum close to the Bath line wrapping up the win.
Exeter were soon in action again and as a result had to dig deep for a 17-14 victory over Gloucester who stole an early advantage through Dan Robson. But back came Exeter with Charlie Walker charging into the Gloucester 22 and although hauled down just short he managed to find Matavesi for the try. Exeter snatched the lead before the break with Michael Stupple crossing in the corner after a turnover on the Gloucester line but there was still time for the Cherry and Whites to respond with Carter crossing after a great off load from Apo Satala and the conversion from Stevenson gave his side a narrow half time lead. Exeter's Paul Higgins showed great strength to notch his side's next try midway through the second half and it would be enough to carry the Chiefs to victory.
Northampton and Bath hammered away to no avail in the first half of their clash that would end in a 19-7 win for the Saints. Northampton broke the deadlock in the second half with Hunt showing a great turn of speed and Charlie Sadler added a second for the home side soon after with Bath's resolve evidently broken. A great off load from Rodwell out of the tackle then put Brake away for Northampton's third try but despite their best efforts they were unable to grab a bonus point score with Bath's James Collins having the final say after snaffling a loose ball on his own 22 before racing away to score.
With their final hopes dashed, Gloucester and Bath were playing for pride in the penultimate game of the evening that ended in a comprehensive 47-0 win for the Cherry and Whites. Rob Langley opened the scoring for Gloucester after a clever chip through and Tom Jarvis grabbed their second moments later after dancing through a couple of tackles. Apo Satala strolled over for the third before the break - with Stevenson adding all three conversions. Langley continued the rout with Gloucester's fourth try straight after the re-start to secure the bonus point and he was soon celebrating his hat-trick. A brace from Ryan Brent rounded out the scoring and set the seal on the biggest win of the competition so far.
With qualification assured, the final game was all about securing the best possible seeding for next Friday's final and the two best sides on show delivered the game of the night. A red card for Exeter's Drew Locke in the opening minute of the game for a spear tackle handed Northampton a crucial advantage but the Chiefs battled bravely and kept the Saints honest in defence throughout. The hosts finally made their numbers count in the last minute of the first half with Tom Powell the beneficiary but Exeter almost struck back immediately through Matavesi only to be denied by the ever-impressive Brake. Powell doubled his side's lead early in the second half but Exeter dragged themselves back into the contest with a try from Mike Canty. However, Ryan Glynn's first try of the evening edged the Saints towards victory but Exeter refused to roll over with Canty grabbing his second score in the final act of the night.
Group C Results:
* Progress to the JP Morgan Premiership Rugby Sevens Series Final at The Rec, Bath, August 6
All four rounds of the tournament, including the final, will be broadcast LIVE from the grounds by ESPN in the UK.