- Bristol earn first Premiership win of the season
- Harlequins seal narrow victory at Twickenham
Bristol finally earned their first win of the season while there were plenty of other milestones and landmarks in an eventful round 11 of Premiership Rugby. Here are six stories and a round-up of the action.
Big Game fans treated to another Twickenham thriller
It might not have been the 10-try 39-39 draw of 2015, but this year’s Christmas showpiece was still a Premiership thriller, as Harlequins held on to beat Gloucester 28-24 in Big Game 9.
Joe Marchant collected Ruaridh Jackson’s perfectly-timed pass for the only try of the first half, with the fly-half outscoring compatriot Greig Laidlaw by two penalties to one.
"Games turn on fine margins." Lawrence Dallaglio on the controversial decision not to award a penalty to Gloucester. https://t.co/cwk4Lzywco— BT Sport Rugby (@btsportrugby) December 27, 2016
But the second half more than made up for a nip-and-tuck opening period, with Jack Clifford bursting over just 28 seconds in before the Cherry & Whites responded through Gareth Evans.
Marchant’s second of the afternoon, another fine finish as he fended off replacement Andy Symons, made the score 28-10 – but two Gloucester scores from James Hook and Motu Matu'u set up another grandstand finish.
Quins held on however to go sixth despite Clifford’s yellow card, with a frantic final play where Gloucester almost forced a maul over from outside the 22 ending a thrilling afternoon’s action.
Varndell stars again as 14-man Bristol break their duck
They got off to the worst possible start at Ashton Gate, but after the dismissal of Tusi Pisi early on, Tom Varndell’s blistering hat-trick earned Bristol Rugby their first league win of the season.
The Samoan international was sent off on 13 minutes for a dangerous tackle on Jamie Shillcock just after Varndell’s opener.
So proud of the team 2day. What a performance.The support was unreal. Thanks for all the tweets of support. Enjoy the rest of your Christmas— Tom Varndell (@Tom_Varndell) December 26, 2016
But rather than crumble when Darren Barry put Worcester ahead, Bristol rallied and Varndell got his second of the game with a superb finish, getting back to his feet after being felled by Pennell following a Will Cliff break.
And it seemed destined to be Bristol’s day, as after Dean Hammond ran in a long-distance effort after half time, the veteran was on hand to complete his hat-trick and secure the points.
Winger Varndell now sits on 89 tries, one behind Mark Cueto’s all-time Premiership record, and Bristol cut the gap on Worcester above them in the standings to just one point.
Record-breaking Wasps keep up the pressure
It was second versus third on Christmas Eve as Wasps welcomed Bath to the Ricoh Arena, and records tumbled by the wayside on an extraordinary afternoon in Coventry.
Christian Wade’s hat-trick paved the way for an impressive 40-26 victory for the hosts, with Jimmy Gopperth kicking eight from eight off the tee to keep Todd Blackadder’s side at arm’s length and ensure that Wasps would finish 2016 unbeaten at home for a calendar year.
Dai Young’s son Thomas also went over for the home side, but scores for Ross Batty and Dave Attwood kept the score respectable for Bath in the first half, before Tom Ellis and Ben Tapuai secured a bonus point in defeat for Bath.
Wade’s hat-trick ended a seven-game scoreless drought, and as well as taking his league tally for 2016 to a record-breaking 18, he is now level with Tom Varndell on trebles scored in the top flight with five.
Jimmy Gopperth also passed the 1000-point mark in Premiership Rugby, while the home crowd of 26,292 was the largest in the league this season with the exception of Twickenham matches.
Chiefs punish Tigers with fast start
Exeter leapfrogged Leicester into the Premiership’s top four courtesy of a 31-10 triumph over their play-off rivals at Sandy Park.
Good to be back at Sandy Park picking up the win. Tough game but think we earned ourselves a few cheeky ones tonight Merry Christmas all x— Jack Nowell (@nowellsy15) December 24, 2016
Early Jack Yeandle and Thomas Waldrom scores set Rob Baxter’s men on their way with the Chiefs’ pack rampant, and a penalty try after Graham Kitchener deliberately knocked on handed them a 21-0 lead at the break.
Tigers improved after the break and finally managed to unlock the hosts’ stubborn defences, with Harry Thacker and Jono Kitto both crossing.
But an excellent Ollie Devoto effort following six high-quality phases wrapped up the four-try bonus point for Exeter, who entered the top four with arguably their best showing of the season so far.
Saracens seal coveted Christmas No.1 spot
With Wasps and Bath locking horns, defending Premiership champions Saracens knew only a victory would do at home to Newcastle Falcons if they wanted to top the pile at Christmas.
And while they were not at their free-flowing best, a try for Chris Ashton – returning from a 13-week ban – capped off the 21-6 win.
The England winger added to Marcelo Bosch’s earlier score, after he danced through the Falcons defence following a lineout in the first half.
Two Joel Hodgson penalties had seen the Falcons briefly take the lead at Allianz Park, but Newcastle failed to score after the 11th minute and Ashton’s finish in the corner following a long, looping, pass to the right flank put the result beyond doubt.
Northampton bounce back from European struggles
Saints’ egos must have been bruised after two Champions Cup humblings at the hands of Leinster, but they showed no signs of any hangover as they swept aside Sale Sharks at home.
Louis Picamoles, Christian Day, Courtney Lawes and captain Tom Wood all returned for Northampton, and while Sale played Rugby League convert Denny Solomona, they could not recover after two tries in the opening half hour.
First Ben Foden went over in the corner after a sweet running move from Saints, before skipper Wood crossed from a few yards after a neat inside pass from Alex Waller – who was celebrating his 200th game in a Northampton jersey.
Sale fought back and a wonderful finish from Solomona gave them hope with a quarter of an hour remaining, but Jim Mallinder’s men held out before Luther Burrell powered his way through several tackles in the last seconds to touch down and put gloss on the 24-5 win.