As so often these days, in rugby, sport and society, a pesky virus played an unsatisfactorily influential role, but the Premiership’s final day finished with the teams who had started in the top eight remaining there to qualify for Europe.
Wasps, Bath and Leicester were the teams who could have been denied, had they not collected the various points required. Happily, these days are also marked by an abundance of tries, so the various bonus points were duly collected, Bath’s in spectacular fashion at the very end of their home match against Northampton, who were already qualified.
The virus claimed two matches from the programme, thus messing with the ancient principle that all games in a final round should start concurrently. Gloucester’s tie with Worcester had been cancelled earlier in the week, but as the teams in the 11th and 12th, theirs was the most expendable, even if Gloucester retained a mathematical chance of the top eight.
But then, on the day, a case of Covid-19 in the London Irish camp did for their trip to Bristol, which had the doubly unsatisfactory effect of handing Bristol top spot without so much as lacing a boot and nudging Irish into that eighth spot, courtesy of the two points they were awarded as the infected party.
Thus they leap-frogged Bath, who now knew they needed a point, rather than just suspecting as much. At the Rec, the hosts never lost contact with that bonus point, even if for stretches of the match it looked as if it might have to be of the losing variety. At various points, they trailed the Saints, for whom Taqele Naiyaravoro contributed two tries and a yellow card at a sensitive moment.
Sam Underhill responded with a chargedown try early on, and then an Anthony Watson break laid on a fine try for Taulupe Faletau, but still Bath went in at the break 15-19 down. Jacques du Toit’s try early in the second half regained them the lead, but James Grayson rounded off a lengthy passage for Saints on the hour, despite Naiyaravoro’s yellow five minutes earlier.
A Rhys Priestland penalty a couple of minutes later earned Bath a lead they would not relinquish, rendering their spectacular bonus-point try at the death superfluous, if richly gratifying. Josh Bayliss, one of Bath’s numerous back-row forwards of outrageous athleticism, stepped and galloped home from 60 metres, leaving three Northampton three-quarters trailing in his wake, for a 30-24 win that took Bath into seventh place, in between Leicester and Wasps.
Neither of those were quite assured of their place in the top eight, before the whistle blew in Coventry, so they racked up the tries to make sure they garnered the points needed one way or another.
The Tigers’ continuing resurgence continued with a 38-31 victory on the road, scoring five of the match’s nine tries, one of them claimed in an urgent style by Dan Cole, his third Premiership try in 13 seasons and 191 matches. Naturally, it was from very close range. Wasps’ four tries in reply, secured by the hour mark, tended to feature more in the way of derring-do, but the second bonus point they secured with a penalty from the last kick of the game merely under-scored their claim on the eighth and final place.
The reason they were safe by then is that Newcastle, who could conceivably have snatched eighth with a bonus-point win at Harlequins, did not manage the most unlikely result of the day. The ledger at the Stoop read two tries apiece at the end of the first quarter, but Quins pulled away, as expected, ending with seven tries in a 54-26 win.