Leicester Tigers snatched a dramatic bonus-point win over Northampton Saints in a pulsating East Midlands showdown at Welford Road on Saturday.
The match was contested by two teams of 14 for over an hour after Chris Ashton's clash with Alesana Tuilagi resulted in red cards for the Tigers wing and Northampton flank Tom Wood.
Leicester led after tries from Matt Smith, Steve Mafi and Ben Youngs, Ashton with Northampton's only reply at that stage. Tom May cut the deficit and Ashton set up Phil Dowson to put the Saints ahead for the first time since the opening 10 minutes, but Horacio Agulla edged the Tigers back in front late on.
After a spell of Northampton pressure which saw referee Wayne Barnes knocked off his feet by a runner, an offside infringement allowed Ryan Lamb to boot the Saints in front. Toby Flood equalised in the 11th minute before the game burst into life.
Ashton had barged into a couple of physical challenges early on. And it spilled over as Ashton tackled Tuilagi's elder brother Alesana out of play by his hair, sparking a fracas against the front of the stand which engulfed a dozen players and an unfortunate ball-boy.
Despite not connecting with a punch, Alesana Tuilagi was red-carded along with Wood, who was spotted by the far-side touch judge throwing two punches. Agulla and team-mate Geordan Murphy were, like Ashton, fortunate to escape punishment.
A lightning Saints break led by Ben Foden was stopped by Smith's tackle on Ashton - and the centre again won the pair's battle at the other end, carrying the would-be tackler with him for several yards and superbly touching down right in the corner for the opening try. Flood's conversion attempt was wayward.
Foden diced with danger on his own line but touched down just before Smith's full-length dive could yield his second score, and a Tigers attack sparked by Youngs fell down when Flood's return pass was behind his scrum-half. The second try came, though, when Foden's kick was charged down and he was forced to hack out for a line-out, from which Leicester recycled the ball and flanker Steve Mafi burst through four weak tackles for a converted score.
The collateral damage continued as Foden was tackled into a pitchside cameraman, before Lamb cut the arrears with a second penalty. Flood missed a drop-goal and penalty on the stroke of half-time to leave it 15-6 at the break.
The England flyhalf found the target early in the second half, but Ashton's fortunes turned when he was found by Foden on the end of some superb quick passing and went over in the corner. Lamb missed the conversion and also a subsequent penalty from a central position.
Northampton were denied one of the tries of the season when they turned the ball over on their own line and from lock Courtney Lawes' wonderful pass, May broke the length of the field but was stopped by Mafi's last-ditch ankle-tap. Youngs was injured in the aftermath but recovered to score Leicester's third try.
Lamb dropped a simple pass and Julian Salvi seized the loose ball and ran for the line. The Saints defence held firm until Youngs picked up and drove and was awarded the try on a marginal call by the television official.
May touched down in similar fashion to cut the deficit and replacement flyhalf Stephen Myler rose above the kicking woes afflicting Lamb and Flood. And Saints led 25-23 when Ashton recovered his own kick out of Agulla's hands and put flank Dowson in behind the posts, Myler again slotting over.
But the game swung back the other way when No.8 Thomas Waldrom shimmied and found Agulla, who ran 50 metres and mimicked Ashton's swallow-dive as he touched down. Flood found his accuracy to put his side five ahead and they clung on.
Tries: Smith, Mafi, Youngs, Agulla
Cons: Flood 2
Pens: Flood 2
Tries: Ashton, May, Dowson
Cons: Myler 2
Pens: Lamb 2
Leicester: 15 Geordan Murphy (captain), 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Steve Mafi, 5 George Skivington, 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Dan Cole, 2 George Chuter, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Rob Hawkins, 17 Boris Stankovich, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Ed Slater, 20 Ben Woods, 21 Sam Harrison, 22 Jeremy Staunton, 23 Scott Hamilton.
Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 George Pisi, 12 Tom May, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Phil Dowson, 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (captain), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Mike Haywood, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Paul Doran-Jones, 19 Samu Manoa, 20 Ben Nutley, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Stephen Myler, 23 Jon Clarke.
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Bath 13-16 Sale Sharks
Bath's stuttering season hit another low point as they surrendered a 10-0 half-time lead against Sale at the Recreation Ground.
It left the West Country club just seven points above bottom club Newcastle in the Premiership table and with a rash of injuries they seem in no great shape to mount a convincing challenge against Heineken Cup holders Leinster next week.
Sale's match-winner was flyhalf Nick Macleod who shrugged off some early misses with the boot before kicking three penalties and converting Mark Cueto's 54th-minute try. Bath's points came from a Michael Claassens try, converted by Olly Barkley, who added two penalties.
Bath took the field knowing they needed to show far more urgency than they had at Worcester a week previously - Bath chairman Bruce Craig in his programme notes condemned that dismal showing as "unacceptable". The injury worries have continued to mount, however, with 13 players absent, including England's World Cup skipper Lewis Moody and New Zealand flyhalf Stephen Donald.
With the squad already threadbare, Josh Ovens had to be recalled from a loan with Bristol in the Championship and 19-year-old hooker Will Tanner made his first start at this level.
Apart from some strong carries by Sale's Andy Powell at No.8, Bath made all the early running, mainly through Nick Abendanon on the left wing.
Barkley, making his first start since breaking his leg last March, prodded the home team into the right areas with his left boot and opened the scoring with a penalty after 10 minutes when Stuart Hooper was upended at a line-out.
The first try came nine minutes later after Matt Banahan barged through on the right. The attack appeared to have lost momentum as Claassens wriggled free from a ruck to find a clear route to the line. Barkley added the points.
Bath continued to dominate and on the odd occasion when pressed into defence, broke from deep with pace and purpose. Abendanon tried one dummy too many on an elusive crossfield foray and Sale flank David Seymour had to be at his most alert when Tom Heathcote broke dangerously.
It was seven minutes into the second half before Sale put points on the board, Macleod kicking a penalty from 25 metres after missing two earlier efforts. That score gave the Sharks confidence to take the initiative and a Powell pick-up at a scrum almost caught Bath napping as Cueto chased a chip by Dwayne Peel only to see the ball run dead. But the England wing was not to be denied.
A couple of minutes later big Tony Buckley rumbled into the Bath 22 and when the ball was moved left, Cueto dummied his way over and Macleod landed a difficult conversion to tie the scores.
Bath responded with a change of front row, bringing on US Eagles hooker Chris Biller for his debut, and a 65th-minute Barkley penalty edged Bath 13-10 ahead.
But Sale were a far more determined outfit than they had been in the first half and when lock Kearnan Myall broke free, Jack Cuthbert had to make a decisive tackle at fullback. The visitors were rewarded with a penalty at the breakdown and Macleod evened things up again.
Bath's scrum, rock solid all game, suddenly fell apart at the next heel and Macleod put his side ahead for the first time with just eight minutes remaining.
Back came the home side and Heathcote cut through only to be brought down under the posts. As he was helped off, Barkley opted to kick for the corner and Bath battered away through their forwards, eventually forcing a five-metre scrum with 90 seconds on the clock. Finally, Claassens lost possession in a desperate lunge for the line and Sale claimed the victory.
Pens: Barkley 2
Pens: Macleod 3
Bath: 15 Jack Cuthbert, 14 Olly Woodburn, 13 Matt Banahan, 12 Olly Barkley, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Tom Heathcote, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Simon Taylor, 7 Guy Mercer, 6 Josh Ovens, 5 Ryan Caldwell, 4 Stuart Hooper (captain), 3 David Wilson, 2 Will Tanner, 1 David Flatman.
Replacements: 16 Chris Biller, 17 Charlie Beech, 18 Anthony Perenise, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 James Tyas, 21 Chris Cook, 22 Dan Hipkiss, 23 Sam Vesty.
Sale: 15 Will Addison, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Johnny Leota, 12 Sam Tuitupou (captain), 11 Joaquin Tuculet, 10 Nick Macleod, 9 Dwayne Peel, 8 Andy Powell, 7 David Seymour, 6 Richie Vernon, 5 Kearnan Myall, 4 Fraser McKenzie, 3 Tony Buckley, 2 Marc Jones, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Tommy Taylor, 17 Vadim Cobilas, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 James Gaskell, 20 Onosa'i Auva'a, 21 Cillian Willis, 22 Tasesa Lavea, 23 Luther Burrell.
Referee: JP Doyle
Exeter Chiefs 15-9 Worcestor Warriors
Exeter Chiefs went third in the Premiership table, at least for 24 hours, as they ended a run of two league home defeats in a tryless encounter.
Argentina international flyhalf Ignacio Mieres slotted all of his five kicks at goal before being replaced when the Chiefs had built up a commanding 15-6 lead with the game going into the final quarter.
Worcester, who have not won away from Sixways in the Premiership since April 2009, replied through two Joe Carlisle penalties before his replacement Andy Goode earned them a third losing bonus point of the season, keeping them six clear of Newcastle Falcons.
The Chiefs gave a first-ever Premiership start to Wales international Craig Mitchell, at the expense of Hoani Tui, as one of three changes from the side that secured their second away win of the season at Sale Sharks last time out .Mieres, who scored the winning try at Sale 40 seconds from time, started alongside scrumhalf Haydn Thomas, replacing Gareth Steenson and Pat Phibbs respectively.
After a couple of minutes Worcester were penalised at a scrum on their own 22 and Mieres, with a slight breeze at his back, neatly slotted the ball between the uprights for the opening score. But the Warriors were quickly back on level terms when Carlisle attempted a penalty from just inside his own half. The ball hit the crossbar, bounced up and down on to the bar again before finally going over.
Referee David Rose stopped the game on 14 minutes at a ruck and called the medical team on to attend to Warriors flank Matt Kvesic, who was stretchered off with an injury to his left ankle before being taken to hospital.
The Chiefs then hammered away at the Warriors line with some good work from wing Gonzalo Camacho and centre Nic Sestaret, who linked up with their forwards before wing Marcel Garvey's thumping tackle halted the charge from lock James Hanks.
With 10 minutes of the half remaining Worcester were again penalised for failing to roll away after the tackle and Mieres' 30-metre kick from just to the left of the posts put the Chiefs back in front. But minutes later the left boot of Carlisle, from out on the left, again levelled the scores after Exeter had been penalised for coming in at the side.
With less than three minutes of the half remaining the Warriors strayed offside and Mieres landed the simple 20-metre penalty. They then gave away a penalty at a scrum on halfway but Carlisle's kick went just under the bar, leaving the Chiefs with a 9-6 interval lead.
Exeter made a good start to the second half and their efforts were rewarded 12 minutes after the restart with a fourth penalty from the boot of Mieres, from in front of the posts, and then a fifth 10 minutes later before he was replaced for the final quarter.
Exeter were forced to defend for large periods in the final minutes of the game as the Warriors went in search of at least a losing bonus point, but the visitors were unable to break through. With three minutes remaining the Warriors were awarded a 25-metre penalty, close to the right touchline, and ex-England flyhalf Goode reduced the arrears to six points.
Pens: Mieres 5
Pens: Carlisle 3
Exeter: 15 Luke Arscott, 14 Gonzalo Camacho, 13 Nic Sestaret, 12 Jason Shoemark, 11 Matt Jess, 10 Ignacio Mieres, 9 Haydn Thomas, 8 Richard Baxter, 7 James Scaysbrook, 6 Tom Johnson, 5 James Hanks, 4 Tom Hayes (captain), 3 Craig Mitchell, 2 Neil Clark, 1 Brett Sturgess.
Replacements: 16 Simon Alcott, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Hoani Tui, 19 James Phillips, 20 Ben White, 21 Pat Phibbs, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Josh Tatupu.
Worcester: 15 Errie Claassens, 14 Marcel Garvey, 13 Alex Grove, 12 Dale Rasmussen (captain), 11 Miles Benjamin, 10 Joe Carlisle, 9 Shaun Perry, 8 Chris Jones, 7 Matt Kvesic, 6 Sam Betty, 5 Craig Gillies, 4 James Percival, 3 Tevita Taumoepeau, 2 Ed Shervington, 1 Bruce Douglas.
Replacements: 16 James Currie, 17 Aleki Lutui, 18 Oliver Tomaszczyk, 19 Ben Gulliver, 20 Jake Abbott, 21 Jonny Arr, 22 Andy Goode, 23 Chris Pennell.
Referee: David Rose
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