Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs returned to winning ways with a battling 26-15 triumph at Gloucester on Friday.

Having lost to Sale Sharks last time out, the Chiefs made it five wins from six top-flight matches with Stuart Hogg scoring having returned to the team from Six Nations duty with Scotland.

Gloucester made a slow start and were punished when Jacques Vermeulen barged over to help Exeter into a 7-3 half-time lead at Kingsholm.

Four Gareth Steenson penalties stretched the advantage and Hogg showed good pace to dot down for Exeter's second try.

Gloucester responded through Jake Polledri and Louis Rees-Zammit, though the fightback started too late for the hosts.

Wales will have to do without Owen Williams for the remainder of their Six Nations campaign due to a hamstring injury.

Initially selected on the bench for Saturday's clash with Ireland, the Gloucester back suffered the injury while warming up ahead of kick-off at the Aviva Stadium.

The 27-year-old - who can play at fly-half or inside centre - had to withdraw from the matchday squad in Dublin, Jarrod Evans taking his place among the replacements.

Wales confirmed on Tuesday that Williams will miss the rest of the tournament following further assessment, though they are yet to name a replacement.

The reigning Six Nations champions are already without fly-halves Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell, while Dan Biggar was forced off during the first half of the 24-14 defeat at the weekend after failing a head injury assessment.

Wayne Pivac's side are next in action on February 22, hosting unbeaten France in Cardiff.

Sale Sharks survived a second-half fightback from Exeter Chiefs to secure a hard-earned 22-19 victory over the Premiership leaders.

Having headed into Saturday's encounter on the south coast without a defeat in all competitions since November, Exeter found themselves trailing 22-5 at the interval after a blistering first-half display from the visitors.

With Tom O'Flaherty sent to the sin bin early on Exeter, Sale ran in three tries in the first half – Chris Ashton, Daniel du Preez and Byron McGuigan getting on the scoresheet.

Rob du Preez added a further seven points, though Phil Dollman's try had handed the Chiefs some hope and Exeter gained 14 points in the space of seven minutes to set up a grandstand finale.

But Sale held firm, clinching a victory that lifted them into third, four points behind Exeter.

Elsewhere, Wasps ran in three tries in the second half to come from behind and edge out Worcester Warriors 30-26, with Dan Robson's late try proving decisive in a bonus-point win.

Wasps are eighth, level on points with the Warriors and three shy of Bath, who just got the better of Leicester Tigers – Tom Homer's double ultimately securing a 13-10 victory.

Meanwhile, Bristol Bears snapped a three-match losing streak with a convincing 34-16 triumph over west country rivals Gloucester, who slipped into fourth.

Callum Sheedy kicked 19 of the Bears' points, converting five penalties in the first half, with Bristol going over three times after the break.

Saracens will face Leinster in the European Champions Cup quarter-finals - a repeat of last season's final - after the scandal-hit London club finally found something to smile about.

Breaches of Premiership Rugby's salary cap have seen Saracens hit with a severe punishment, with the club told on Saturday they will be demoted from the top tier of English rugby at the end of the season.

Their domestic achievements and their dominance of the Champions Cup, which they have won in three of the past four seasons, have come in for fresh scrutiny since it emerged Saracens had broken the rules.

Director of rugby Mark McCall told his players to set the off-pitch problems aside on Sunday, and a dramatic 27-24 win over Racing 92 proved enough for Saracens to book a last-eight place after Gloucester lost 35-14 to Toulouse later in the day.

Owen Farrell booted a match-winning late penalty for 14-man Saracens, who had Will Skelton sent off in the first half and lost Billy Vunipola to an arm injury.

Two tries from Maro Itoje and one from Mako Vunipola were countered by Racing, whose five-pointers came from Virimi Vakatawa, who dotted down twice, and Louis Dupichot.

Saracens led 17-7 at one stage but were 21-17 behind at the break, turning the game around with Itoje's second try before England captain Farrell nailed a 75th-minute penalty.

At the final whistle, Saracens were not sure of their place in the quarter-finals, with a two-hour wait until that was confirmed.

Racing beat them to top spot in Pool 4, and to grab one of the three last-eight places allocated to the best runners-up Saracens needed Gloucester to fall short against Toulouse.

The Cherry and Whites were well beaten in France, going down by five converted tries to two at Stade Ernest-Wallon, with Romain Ntamack running in two of the Top 14 side's scores.

It means Saracens face another appointment with Leinster, the team they beat 20-10 at St James' Park last May to be crowned European champions.

This time Saracens must travel to Dublin to tackle the 2018 Champions Cup winners.

During Leinster's run to European glory two years ago, Saracens lost away to the Irish outfit in the quarter-finals.

Sunday's other matches involved teams whose run in this competition is over for another year, with Munster beating Ospreys 33-6 and Montpellier grabbing a thrilling 35-29 success against Connacht.

 

Quarter-final line-up (ties to be played on April 3-5):

Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92
Toulouse v Ulster
Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints
Leinster v Saracens

Saracens kept their European Champions Cup defence alive despite Rhys Carre's early red card at Ospreys, while Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse and Exeter Chiefs booked quarter-final spots.

Prop Carre was shown a straight red card for a shoulder-led tackle on Dan Evans just four minutes in, but the reigning champions went on to claim a crucial 22-15 triumph at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday.

Fly-half Manu Vunipola was successful with his six efforts from the tee, which consisted of five penalties and the conversion of Alex Lewington's try off Richard Wigglesworth's box kick.

Sarries consequently moved up to second in Pool 4 and three points behind Racing 92, who face Munster on Sunday.

A battling 31-31 draw with Glasgow Warriors was sufficient for Exeter to reach the last eight for just the second time in their history, with only the crossbar denying them the win via a 60-yard Stuart Hogg penalty beyond the 80th minute against his former club.

Tommy Seymour touched down in the opening minute as the Warriors surged into an early 14-3 lead, but Matt Kvesic's double helped ensure the Chiefs got a bonus point and progressed as Pool 2 winners.

Second-half tries from Alivereti Raka and George Moala led Clermont from behind to a 29-13 win at home to Ulster, the Top 14 side taking control of Pool 3.

Toulouse guaranteed a last-eight berth by winning 21-7 at Connacht. Jerome Kaino, Julien Marchand and Pita Ahki cross for the visitors, who were reduced to 13 men in the closing stages when Zack Holmes saw red for a dangerous tackle after Yoann Huget was sent to the sin bin.

Gloucester lost Danny Cipriani to injury after 12 minutes but remained in contention to advance as one of the three best runners-up with a 29-6 bonus-point win against Montpellier.

Ben Morgan, Louis Rees-Zammit and Todd Gleave marked their returns to the starting line-up with tries, the latter coming after Paul Willemse was shown a yellow card for collapsing the maul.

Relegation-threatened Saracens bounced back from a defeat to Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs with a 62-5 thrashing of Worcester Warriors, while there were also wins for Leicester Tigers and Gloucester on Saturday.

Champions Sarries have now collected more points this season than Exeter, but a 35-point deduction for breaching salary-cap regulations means they remain bottom of the pile and in the red.

However, the beleaguered the London club are making swift progress in their survival bid and scored 10 tries in rout of Worcester at Allianz Park in a week that saw Nigel Wray resign as chairman.

It was one-way traffic from the outset as Ben Earl opened the scoring after six minutes, with the first of Rotimi Segun's first-half double quickly following.

Brad Barritt and Mako Vunipola also went over before the break, and Sarries matched their haul from the first 40 minutes in the second period.

Richard Barrington, Maro Itoje, Duncan Taylor, Jackson Wray and, finally, in the 81st minute, Elliot Daly got on the scoresheet, with Owen Farrell nailing six conversion attempts.

There was a derby win for Gloucester as they put on a late show to beat Bath 29-15 at Kingsholm.

Rhys Priestland's five penalties had visitors Bath in front until just before the hour-mark, but tries from Gerbrandt Grobler and Ruan Ackermann in quick succession set up an ultimately comfortable victory.

Leicester got a much-needed win as they saw off Bristol Bears 31-18, led by England pair George Ford and Jonny May.

Tigers are only kept off the bottom of the table by Sarries, but a strong start set up a precious second victory of the season in the early kick-off.

Bristol-born Ellis Genge England prop went over with just three minutes played, and May and Ford crossed later in a first half that saw two Bears men sent to the sin bin.

Although Bristol battled back early in the second period, May had his second try with six minutes remaining, while Ford dispatched all four conversions and a penalty to leave Leicester 18 points better off than European Champions Sarries.

Leinster maintained their phenomenal 100 per cent Pro14 record by grinding out a 13-6 derby victory at Munster and Edinburgh beat Glasgow Warriors on Saturday.

The defending champions put on a defensive masterclass at Thomond Park to make it nine wins from nine in the competition.

Leinster held off a bright start from Munster to score through Ed Byrne from their first real attack of note.

Ross Byrne added the extras and split the posts again to make it 10-0 after 22 minutes, with JJ Hanrahan getting Munster on the board shortly before the break.

Hanrahan nailed another penalty early in the second half, but for all their endeavour, Munster could not find a way through a stoic Leinster defence.

Edinburgh - second in Conference B - overcame Glasgow 29-19 to keep alive their hopes of winning the 1872 Cup – contested annually between the Scottish rivals – for a third straight year, having lost to the same opponents a week ago.

Darcy Graham scored twice for Edinburgh, who were twice behind after the break due to tries from Scott Cummings and George Horne.

Benetton Treviso made it two wins over Italian rivals Zebre in the space of a week, hooker Hame Faiva scored a hat-trick in a 36-25 win despite the early sending off of Juan Ignacio Brex.

Louis Rees-Zammit scored a first Gloucester hat-trick but Northampton Saints ran out 33-26 winners in a seven-try thriller that sees them return to the top of the Premiership table.

In a match of high quality at Franklin's Gardens, it was fledging Welsh winger Rees-Zammit – who has five tries over his past two matches – who touched down first, racing free after picking up Mark Atkinson's grubber kick.

Saints took control through scores from Mike Haywood and Cobus Reinach and the respective boots of Dan Biggar and Piers Francis, before Chris Harris's converted try reduced the arrears.

Reinach's second, after a loose pass from Danny Cipriani, left Gloucester with an uphill task but Freddie Clarke released Rees-Zammit for his second of the match.

A yellow card for Josh Hohneck for a high tackle left Gloucester a man light, during which time Francis added three points from the tee and, although Rees-Zammit completed his treble when Gloucester worked the ball wide, he nailed another penalty to leave Saints out of sight.

Struggling Leicester Tigers dramatically fought back from a 14-point deficit to earn a thrilling 30-30 draw with Harlequins at Twickenham.

Quins were in complete command against a Leicester side with just a solitary win to their name this season, with tries from Paul Lasike, Marcus Smith and Chris Robshaw helping the hosts to a 27-13 lead.

But Jordan Taufua started the comeback on the hour, before Smith and Leicester fly-half George Ford exchanged penalties.

Will Collier's yellow then left Quins at a temporary numerical disadvantage, which Leicester made the most of when Telusa Veainu latched onto a kick from Ford, who added the extras to tie up the game.

Sale Sharks made it back-to-back wins to move seventh in the table as Rhys Priestland kicked 11 points in a 16-14 beating of Bath, for whom Akker van Der Merwe and Byron McGuigan went over in quickfire scores after the break.

Worcester Warriors, hammered 36-3 by Gloucester last time out, bounced back with a 20-6 beating of London Irish – the visitors having Motu Matu'u sent off seven minutes before the break, shortly after Allan Dell was also sin-binned for the away team. 

Gloucester accelerated away from Worcester Warriors in a dominant final 20 minutes to end their losing run in the Premiership with a 36-3 success.

Hosts Gloucester had been beaten in each of their prior three league matches, winning just once in seven in all competitions coming into Friday's clash.

And this encounter was tense for an hour, with a penalty apiece from Danny Cipriani and Duncan Weir the only scores.

But Gloucester's pressure finally told as Ruan Ackermann crossed, kickstarting a stunning spell.

The home side ended with five tries, as Chris Harris' crucial second was followed by a Louis Rees-Zammit brace that sandwiched Ben Morgan's score.

Saracens breathed new life into their European Champions Cup title defence as the Vunipola brothers starred in a 15-6 win over Munster at Allianz Park.

The reigning champions, who have lifted the trophy in three of the past four seasons, had won just one of their opening three games and came into the game trailing Pool 4 leaders Racing 92 by 11 points.

They were 6-3 behind against Munster early in the second half when a melee ensued after Jamie George appeared to be enraged by a conversation with a member of Munster's staff.

The brawl spilled over onto the advertising hoardings and, once it had subsided, Munster got a penalty which JJ Hanrahan missed.

Saracens soon came alive as Billy Vunipola, with three men converging on him, flipped a brilliant pass out to Sean Maitland to score before Mako Vunipola dotted down eight minutes from time to leave Sarries just one point behind second-placed Munster.

Leinster, the side Sarries beat in last season's final, made it four wins from four in Pool 1 with a dominant 50-21 victory over Northampton as Garry Ringrose scored a hat-trick.

The Ireland centre went over twice in the opening six minutes before Tadhg Furlong and Dave Kearney earned Leinster a bonus point prior to half-time.

Ringrose completed his treble after James Lowe had scored, with Caelan Doris crossing for Leinster's seventh and final try.

Premiership leaders Northampton - whose try-scorers were Dan Biggar, Ollie Sleightholme and Ahsee Tuala - now trail Leinster by 10 points with two games remaining.

Robin Copeland's 81st-minute try earned Connacht a 27-24 success over Gloucester, while Marco Lazzaroni's late score proved the difference in Benetton Treviso's 25-22 triumph against Lyon.

Toulouse beat Montpellier 26-18 while La Rochelle edged past Glasgow Warriors 12-7.

 

Exeter Chiefs made it three wins from as many European Champions Cup Pool 2 games with a 22-20 victory over fellow Premiership side Sale Sharks.

The action was concentrated in an entertaining first half at the AJ Bell Stadium, where Stuart Hogg was pivotal in a penalty try and touched down for another five points.

Sale responded through Akker van der Merwe's two tries, but Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed to ensure Rob Baxter's men were ahead at the interval.

The second half was scoreless until Jono Ross' late try gave Sale hope, but Exeter saw out the victory to move to the brink of securing a quarter-final spot.

Gloucester revived their hopes of reaching the knockout stage with a first win in three attempts in Pool 5.

After back-to-back defeats, in which they had the consolation of taking losing bonus points, the Premiership side defeated Connacht 26-17 and gained a try-scoring bonus point.

Having trailed at the break, the hosts roared back to triumph at Kingsholm Stadium, with Tom Marshall touching down in each half, while Louis Rees-Zammit and Jake Polledri also got in on the act.

Connacht were hamstrung by Kyle Godwin's dismissal as they were left at the foot of the table.

In the same group, Toulouse continued their 100 per cent record with a dominant 23-9 victory over Montpellier.

Bristol Bears had to settle for a 27-27 draw against 14-man London Irish following a frenetic finish at Ashton Gate.

The Bears had ended the previous round of fixtures top of the Premiership pile, but results went against them on Saturday as Northampton Saints reached the summit with a bonus-point success.

And Bristol's hopes of climbing back above Northampton were hindered by a dogged Irish display the following day, the promoted outfit playing for 40 minutes a man down.

The home side struggled to get going early on and trailed 7-3 at the break after Ben Meehan's try, although they were boosted by a red card for Ollie Hoskins as his shoulder made contact with Chris Vui's head.

Nathan Hughes and Charles Piutau crossed following the restart and the Bears appeared to be in control.

However, Waisake Naholo intercepted to race through and score for Irish, kickstarting a frantic spell.

Ed Holmes scored in style for Bristol, then John Afoa was sent to the sin bin and Tom Parton had Irish back in front again, only for Harry Thacker to cross three minutes from time.

Stephen Myler dispatched a last-gasp Irish penalty and there was no time for the Bears to rally once more, able only to climb to second.

Sunday's other fixture was a similarly tight affair, but Harlequins got the better of Gloucester 23-19.

Ross Chisholm and Alex Dombrandt went over for Harlequins, with an Ollie Thorley double and Ben Morgan's try coming in response. 

Marcus Smith's third penalty with the final play of the game made the points safe.

Pierre Bourgarit has been hit with a six-week suspension for his eye-gouge on Tom Curry in La Rochelle's European Champions Cup loss to Sale Sharks.

Bourgarit was sent off for the offence, which occurred late in Sunday's first half at the AJ Bell Stadium, where Sale triumphed 25-15.

The La Rochelle hooker inexplicably put his hand into the 21-year-old's eyes during a grapple and was dismissed.

Explaining the length of the ban, a statement from the independent disciplinary committee read: "It was decided that the offence was at the top end of World Rugby's sanctions for contact with the eye area, however, it was also decided that there was no reason to consider a sanction greater than the minimum entry point of 12 weeks.

"There were no aggravating factors, and taking into account the player's guilty plea, clear disciplinary record and timely expression of remorse, the committee reduced the sanction by the maximum of 50 per cent before imposing a six-week suspension."

Bourgarit, who is entitled to appeal, will be free to return on January 6.

Meanwhile, Montpellier's Jacques du Plessis is set to serve a five-week ban after he was sent off for elbowing Gloucester's Gerbrandt Grobler, and Ulster's Will Addison has received a four-week sanction for a dangerous tackle on Clermont's Paul Jedrasiak.

Pierre Bourgarit was sent off for eye-gouging Tom Curry as Sale Sharks beat La Rochelle 25-15 and Montpellier clung on for a European Champions Cup win over Gloucester despite Jacques du Plessis' dismissal.

Curry was man of the match in his first appearance of the season for Sale on Sunday, three weeks after playing in England's Rugby World Cup final defeat to South Africa.

Yet the flanker was fortunate to escape without suffering damage when hooker Bourgarit inexplicably put his hand into the 21-year-old's eyes during a grapple late in the first half at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Bourgarit's early exit left La Rochelle down to 13 men, with Remi Leroux in the sin bin and the Sharks leading 10-7 courtesy of an early converted Rohan Janse van Rensburg try and AJ MacGinty's penalty.

Vincent Rattez touched down at the other end midway through the half and although Brock James levelled from the tee just after the break, La Rochelle's indiscipline proved to be costly.

Sale were awarded a penalty try as La Rochelle had Dany Priso sin-binned, before Chris Ashton scored his 40th Champions Cup five-pointer. World Cup winner Faf de Klerk made a winning return to Sale duty, with Jeremy Sinzelle's reply for La Rochelle coming too late to prevent the Sharks from going second in Pool 2.

Du Plessis was given his marching orders for an elbow on Gerbrandt Grobler in the second half as Montpellier edged out Gloucester 30-27 for their first win of the competition at the GGL Stadium.

Montpellier were 27-17 up when Du Plessis had a rush of blood and the lock would have been a relieved man when Premiership side Gloucester ran out of time to secure a first Pool 5 win.

Jan Serfontein, Caleb Timu and Nemani Nadolo crossed in the first half for the Top 14 outfit, with Matt Banahan and Joe Simpson touching down for the Cherry and Whites in a tense second half after Callum Braley got on the scoresheet four minutes prior to the break.

Toulouse staged an impressive second-half comeback to open their European Champions Cup campaign with a hard-fought 25-20 victory over Gloucester.

Premiership side Gloucester led 20-9 at the break, Joe Simpson crossing twice as the hosts held sway in the opening 40 minutes at Kingsholm.

Both were impressive finishes from the scrum-half that saw him break clear from inside his own territory. Danny Cipriani landed each conversion attempt plus a pair of penalties, giving Gloucester a useful lead at the midway stage of the Pool 5 clash.

However, four-time winners Toulouse roared back in the second half, scoring 16 points without reply to prevail on the road.

Thomas Ramos - who split the posts twice in the first period to add to Zack Holmes drop goal - and Romain Ntamack kicked a penalty apiece to close the gap before the Top 14 side struck the decisive blow just after the hour.

Scrum-half Sebastien Bezy darted over from close range after excellent work from his pack, leaving Ramos with an easy conversion to put his team ahead.

The full-back slotted over a further three points with 12 minutes remaining, giving Toulouse a five-point cushion they retained through to the final whistle.

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