- Saracens hold off Ulster to reach Heineken Cup semis
- Bath Rugby, London Wasps and Northampton Saints into Amlin Challenge last four
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An all-Aviva Premiership tie in the Amlin Challenge Cup on Thursday night got a jam-packed European weekend underway, Sale Sharks hosting Northampton Saints at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford.
Tighthead Henry Thomas – fresh from a back-up role for Stuart Lancaster's charges in the recent RBS 6 Nations – barged over early on for the home side, but four scores for the physically dominant East Midlands outfit before half-time foreshadowed the visitors' 28-14 victory.
Former England U20 back-rower Ben Nutley grabbed a brace, Saxon Sam Dickinson dotted down and Ben Foden skated in to hand Jim Mallinder's men a comfortable cushion at the break.
Villiami Fiaki crossed late on for Sale, but Saints were too strong, guided by an exceptional display from Lee Dickson at scrum half and some sparky running from centre teenage Tom Stephenson, who could well have a big part to play for England U20 at the Junior World Championship in New Zealand this summer.
On Friday evening, Harlequins joined Northampton in the last four of the Amlin Challenge, dispatching an understrength Stade Francais 29-6.
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Mike Brown clinched one of his team's two tries to underline another excellent showing that featured 14 carries and six beaten defenders. Joe Marler, Danny Care and skipper Chris Robshaw, who made nine tackles, were also influential.
Saturday saw Leicester Tigers make a courageous attempt to ransack Clermont and end the Top 14 giants' 74-match winning run at the Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. Despite slipping to a 16-0 first-half deficit, Richard Cockerill's side battled back but were eventually ousted 22-16.
Manu Tuilagi made eight carries for 51 metres and Tom Youngs racked up nine tackles, but last season's finalists proved just too strong.
A matter of hours later, Saracens took on Ulster at a raucous Ravenhill. It was a game shrouded in controversy from very early on, full back Jared Payne shown a red card by referee Jerome Garces for taking out opposite number Alex Goode in the air just four minutes in.
That decision spurred the hosts into a defiant effort and Mark McCall's men were given a huge scare by a depleted but determined team before eventually booking a Twickenham semi-final.
Billy Vunipola was fantastic and hauled Saracens over the gainline time and again. He racked up 66 metres from 13 carries, beating six defenders on the way. His brother Mako contributed a great deal of physicality over a 73-minute shift as well, while Brad Barritt made seven tackles.
Chris Ashton snared a double with two classy finishes and Mouritz Botha crossed for the third and final try as Ulster were put away. Though Owen Farrell undeniably endured an off-day from the tee, it was his pinpoint cross-kick that allowed Ashton to complete his brace, taking the 37-cap wing to nine tries for the Heineken Cup campaign – one short of the record for a single tournament held by Sebastian Carrat.
Bath Rugby put Brive to the sword on Sunday afternoon, scoring six times on the way to a 39-7 win. Kyle Eastmond enjoyed a lively cameo as a replacement and Argentina international Horacio Agulla landed a hat-trick.
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The final clash of the weekend involving English clubs pitted London Wasps against Gloucester Rugby, Andy Goode completing the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final line-up with a 21-point haul that guided Wasps through.
It could have been a lot more comfortable for Goode and co. too – a score from Matt Mullan had helped them into a 23-3 advantage with half an hour to play. However, a try from the prolific Jonny May brought the Cherry and Whites into contention at 23-17.
Tension descended on the final stages, but two more penalties from Goode and a Will Helu score ended Gloucester's challenge and saw Wasps to a 36-24 win.
Joe Launchbury was once more impressive over an 80-minute display, while James Haskell was everywhere in defence to make 14 tackles.