Premiership champions Exeter staged an extraordinary fightback with 14 men to beat Sale 20-19 and book a home play-off against the same opponents.
For much of a gripping contest in the Devon sunshine, Sale served notice of their title credentials, leading by 16 points when Chiefs lock Sam Skinner was sent off for a high challenge on Faf de Klerk.
But Exeter somehow turned the game on its head after Skinner’s 54th-minute exit, storming to victory through tries by Luke Cowan-Dickie and Stu Townsend, while skipper Joe Simmonds kicked two penalties and two conversions, including a penalty clincher nine minutes from time.
Sale, seeking a first Premiership final appearance for 15 years, will return to Devon next Saturday, yet one more try when they led 19-3 and keeping Exeter at a safe distance would have meant the game going to the north-west instead.
Wing Byron McGuigan, fly-half AJ MacGinty and wing Arron Reed scored tries for Sale, with MacGinty booting two conversions, but ultimately they were undone by Exeter’s astonishing resilience as they were edged out on a day when their England centre Manu Tuilagi made a strong first start for nine months.
But they also suffered a cruel injury blow on the stroke of full-time as influential playmaker MacGinty was carried off.
Exeter showed four changes from the side that fought back from an 18-point deficit to beat Northampton last time out, with wing Alex Cuthbert, centre Ollie Devoto and flanker Dave Ewers among those handed starts.
Tuilagi was Sale’s headline selection, while they also included four of their players in South Africa’s squad to face the British and Irish Lions this summer.
And the visitors made a scintillating start, claiming an opening try after just two minutes.
MacGinty was the architect, with his clever cross-kick almost resulting in a try for Reed, but possession was quickly recycled and moved towards the opposite touchline, and McGuigan touched down.
MacGinty converted, before Simmonds kicked a long-range penalty and Sale lost flanker Cameron Neild to injury, with Ben Curry replacing him.
There was further injury woe for Sale just five minutes later, with hooker Akker van der Merwe limping out of the action and Curtis Langdon joining Sharks’ forward effort.
And another worrying moment followed for Sale when Tom Curry went down and grabbed the back of his right leg, but he soon rejoined the action as Sharks looked to regroup.
They kept territorial pressure on Exeter, and a second try arrived in the 22nd minute when MacGinty glided over from close range, and his conversion opened up an 11-point lead.
It was no more than Sale deserved, before Exeter were forced into their first change when flanker Jannes Kirsten went off for a head injury assessment and was replaced by Richard Capstick.
There were more back-row issues for Exeter just before the interval when Ewers was sin-binned.
Ewers made high shoulder-led contact on Sale full-back Simon Hammersley, but referee Karl Dickson opted for a yellow card rather than red following lengthy discussions with television match official Clare Hodnett.
Sale could not make their temporary one-man advantage count before the break, though, leading 14-3 midway through a pulsating contest.
But it took them barely three minutes of the second period to extend their advantage, and MacGinty again played a pivotal role, rolling a kick behind Exeter’s defence and allowing Reed a simple finish.
Exeter were in deep trouble, and matters deteriorated for them when Skinner was shown a red card for a high challenge on De Klerk.
It was now a real test of character for them, but they gave themselves a glimmer of hope when Cowan-Dickie crashed over for a try that Simmonds converted, while full-back Stuart Hogg was taken off and replaced by lock Sean Lonsdale as Chiefs retained eight forwards.
Exeter then claimed a second try, with Townsend going over after Ben Curry was sin-binned, and Simmonds’ conversion made it a two-point game before landing his penalty winner.
Danny Care scored two tries as Harlequins warmed up for the Premiership play-offs with a comfortable 54-26 victory over Newcastle Falcons.
Quins, who were already certain to finish fourth, ran in eight tries in total at the Stoop on a day where their first-choice players were restored, having been rested against Sale Sharks last time out.
Their refreshed attack had too much for the Falcons, whose faint Champions Cup qualification hopes were finally snuffed out as a result of the defeat.
It took Harlequins less than four minutes to open the scoring as captain Alex Dombrandt broke off an attacking scrum before off-loading for fellow back-rower Jack Kenningham to power over.
Newcastle quickly hit back, however, as hooker George McGuigan was able to plunge over from a pick-and-go after a driving maul had been stopped just short of the line.
The hosts struck off a scrum for a second time after 15 minutes, with Dombrandt picking up and feeding Care, who raced to the line without meeting much opposition before Marcus Smith added the extras.
The generous defending continued as McGuigan went over for his second try after some flimsy tackling had allowed Joel Hodgson into a dangerous position, but Brett Connon’s missed conversion kept Quins in front.
SEMI-FINALS LOCKED IN! 🔒
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) June 12, 2021
Newcastle were then handed a reprieve when a Matt Symons ‘try’ was ruled out for foul play by Tom Lawday in the build-up, when the flanker dangerously dropped off his feet at a ruck.
But Harlequins did have a third try in the 32nd minute when Ben Tapuai picked up after Aaron Morris’ pass had gone loose and sent Care scurrying clear to score under the posts.
The bonus point was in the bag for Quins off the final play of the first half as quick hands by Joe Marchant allowed Tyrone Green to squeeze in down the left, with Smith’s excellent conversion putting them 28-12 ahead at half-time.
It took five minutes of the second half for the hosts to pull further clear as Lawday collected Smith’s perfect chip towards the right wing before sending Louis Lynagh clear to score in the corner.
Adam Radwan then pulled a try back for Newcastle with a superb individual effort that saw him dodge a couple of tacklers in his own half before he used his searing pace to go under the sticks.
Normal service was quickly resumed by Harlequins, though, as Care’s ball inside gave Marchant a simple finish on the hour mark.
Kyle Cooper rumbled over to earn the Falcons a try bonus point, but the hosts were able to run up the half-century in the closing stages thanks to late scores from Martin Landajo and Joe Gray.
Leicester secured their first top-half Premiership finish for three seasons after edging Wasps 38-31 at the Ricoh Arena where spectators enjoyed their first live action for 15 months.
Both teams qualified for next season’s Champions Cup, with Leicester ending the campaign in sixth spot and Wasps in eighth.
Only one point separated them before the match, but the Tigers have taken a stride forward while Wasps, last season’s beaten finalists, have regressed.
Nine of the players involved will report for England duty on Monday but it was someone whose international career appears to be over, Dan Cole, who made a decisive impact in a first half that swung in the summer sunshine.
The Lions prop had scored two tries in 190 Premiership appearances for Leicester but increased his tally by 50 per cent seven minutes before half-time, forcing his way over the line after Harry Wells and Julian Montoya worked a clever line-out move.
Leicester enjoyed more of the play on a ground where they had lost on their previous six visits in the Premiership but Wasps compensated for their indiscipline with moments of individual brilliance on an afternoon when neither side needed to win to qualify for Europe.
Wasps took the lead after seven minutes. Wells made a try-saving tackle on Brad Shields, but a series of rucks on the Leicester line ended with number eight Sione Vailanu scoring on an afternoon when all nine tries were converted.
Leicester drew level after 19 minutes when Dan Kelly, one of the England newcomers, made a break from a scrum and second-row Cameron Henderson scooped an off-load off his feet and stretched out for the line.
The set-piece was the source for the Tigers’ second try which gave them the lead, scored by their other centre Mike Scott after the burly wing Nemani Nadolo had distracted the defence as a decoy.
Leicester were at their most vulnerable just after they had scored and within two minutes Wasps were level. Marcus Watson’s kick infield was picked up by Jacob Umaga and the outside-half stepped away from Zack Henry before rounding Freddie Steward on a 40-metre run.
Johnny McPhillips kicked a penalty to restore Leicester’s lead before Cole’s try made it 24-14 to the visitors, only for Wasps to win the restart and set up Vailanu for his second try.
Leicester secured their bonus point and Champions Cup berth six minutes after the restart when a Wells charge and Jack van Poortvliet snipe set up hooker Montoya.
But back came Wasps through second-row Will Rowlands, playing his final match for the club before joining the Dragons.
Henry was sent to the sin-bin for a flip tackle on Watson after 61 minutes, but Wasps continued to concede penalties and Tomas Lavanini sealed victory for the Tigers seven minutes from time before Umaga’s late penalty gave Wasps a second bonus point.
A sun-kissed Recreation Ground welcomed nearly 3,000 supporters to witness Bath secure a place in Europe’s elite club competition next season thanks to a 30-24 Premiership victory over Northampton.
They managed it in the most nerve-jangling fashion, hanging on to a one-point lead at the death until replacement flanker Josh Bayliss galloped 70 metres for the clinching try with the clock at zero.
For much of the second half they had been straining for a try bonus point, which would have been enough on most calculations.
In the closing seconds, conceding a converted try and scraping a losing bonus point might have sufficed but it would have been a demeaning end to the season.
Saints, already confirmed as fifth-place finishers in the Premiership, looked off the pace in the first quarter.
The visitors, who were without suspended lock Dave Ribbans, saw their reorganised line-out malfunction, badly handing Bath easy possession.
But apart from a Rhys Priestland penalty after four minutes, and for all the threat posed by Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga and Tom De Glanville from deep, the home side just could not get points on the board.
Northampton needed all of Tommy Freeman’s pace to snuff out the danger when Priestland hacked-on into the in-goal area and a Ben Spencer touchdown was ruled out for a fumbled offload in the build-up.
Instead, the first try came after 20 minutes at the other end of the field as Taqele Naiyaravoro strode in unopposed, with James Grayson converting from the touchline.
We're so glad you witnessed that end!
— Bath Rugby (@BathRugby) June 12, 2021
Bath’s riposte came immediately with Sam Underhill’s charge-down try from Alex Mitchell’s box-kick from the restart and the home side quickly added another from Taulupe Faletau, thanks to Watson’s quicksilver break.
Priestland’s conversion put them 15-7 ahead but they paid dearly for Watson’s fumbled attempt at a simple touchdown seven minutes before half-time.
A superb finish by centre Rory Hutchinson – converted by Grayson – and another stroll-in try by Naiyaravoro, both in that vulnerable corner, left Bath trailing 15-19 at the break.
Spencer, whose fine tactical kicking had been a reassuring feature of Bath’s game, had another ‘try’ disallowed at the start of the second half, but the pack soon fashioned a catch-and-drive score for hooker Jacques du Toit before Priestland’s kick edged the home side back in front.
But the unstructured see-saw nature of the second half did not faze Saints who looked dangerous attacking from any point on the field.
Grayson finished off a sustained attack to earn a try bonus point on the hour – albeit unconverted – before Priestland snatched back the lead with a penalty.
What Bath really needed to secure a place in the Champions Cup was a bonus try themselves, but Northampton were not ready to oblige, although the TMO had to step in again to deny replacement hooker Tom Doughty, after spotting a block off the ball by Bayliss.
The last few minutes were a rearguard action, trying to stave off wave after wave of Saints attacks, until Bayliss broke clear to seal the win.