Exeter deny Sarries a 'double-double'
PREMIERSHIP REPORT: Exeter Chiefs claimed a narrow 18-16 win over the defending Champions the Saracens to book themselves a spot in the Premiership final for the second successive year.
It was a brutal affair and as the 40th-minute mark hit the clock both sides failed to penetrate the opposition's defence and had to settle for 6-all at the break with no try being scored.
The scores were level after an absorbing, end-to-end first half, as Owen Farrell and Gareth Steenson cancelled each other out with two penalties each.
And the capacity crowd at Sandy Park were treated to another epic arm wrestle in the second half, as Jack Nowell and Chris Wyles crossed at either end, before Mike Ellery looked to have won it five minutes from time with a remarkable, acrobatic score.
But Exeter’s remarkable character came to the fore once again, as replacement Henry Slade slammed a huge penalty into touch five metres out, and Simmonds rumbled over with the clock ticking into the red to deny European champions Saracans an historic double-double.
The raucous Chiefs support certainly did their part as 16th man in the opening exchanges, but Farrell silenced them with a massive penalty from fully 45-metres out after four minutes to put the visitors ahead.
And it was Saracens who applied the early pressure. First Phil Dollman was forced into touch on his own five-metre line, but Exeter won a scrum penalty to clear.
Then the Vunipola brothers linked up brilliantly in midfield, but Farrell’s inch-perfect grubber-kick was cleaned up superbly by Jack Nowell in the backfield.
Mark McCall was dealt a blow with two of his most consistent performers, Mike Rhodes and Chris Ashton, forced off with injuries – but ruthless play from the defending champions saw them double their lead.
Another Farrell kick made it 6-0, with Saracens clearing well and winning a penalty up the field, but the Chiefs soon swung the momentum to come back into the contest – Steenson turning down two shots at goal with the wind in his face.
Only determined defending on their own line from Saracens kept Exeter from notching up the game’s first try, but two Steenson penalties from bang in front levelled the scores.
The Chiefs were now at their free-flowing best and put the ball through the hands before earning a scrum five metres out, but despite being experts from that range, Billy Vunipola’s brilliant defensive work won Saracens a penalty and once again the north-London side were able to clear.
And while Nowell looked like he had finally wriggled clear of the Wolfpack’s defences in the final minute of the half, Richard Wigglesworth’s brilliantly executed tackle kept it 6-6 at the break.
But Exeter finally made all their pressure count just two minutes into the second half. Dollman made the incisive break, with Ollie Devoto doing brilliantly to carry the ball to the line and Nowell finishing with aplomb.
Steenson made the difficult conversion from the sideline look easy, and Exeter were still finding gaps in the Saracens defence – Dollman and Thomas Waldrom in particular.
Even the ice-cool Farrell looked slightly rattled, missing touch with a penalty, but Saracens showed their champion quality to bounce back as they have so often this season.
A multi-phase move was finished off by Wyles in the corner, with Maro Itoje drawing in the defenders and offloading superbly, but Farrell’s tricky conversion was missed and Exeter held a slender 13-11 advantage.
The nerves began to show in a nailbiting final 20 minutes as both Farrell and Steenson kicked out on the full when well placed.
Saracens broke away superbly on 70 minutes, as Wigglesworth’s box-kick was tapped back for Farrell who found Taylor, but Chiefs dealt with the attack and replacement Simmonds won a penalty with fantastic work at the breakdown.
But with just five minutes remaining the visitors struck a hammer blow, with Mike Ellery somehow getting the ball down in the corner despite Henry Slade’s massive tackle.
Farrell hooked his conversion attempt from the sideline left of the posts, and Exeter had a chance to salvage the game.
Slade’s incredible penalty – a monstrous kick from inside his own half – gave the Chiefs a lineout five metres from the line, and there was Simmonds to win it and blow the lid off Sandy Park.
Man of the match: Exeter Chiefs scrumhalf Stuart Townsend, his kicks to touch were sensational, while his quick ball and unexpected breaks caught the Sarries' defence off guard on more than three occasions. Meanwhile, Saracens No.8 Billy Vunipola was just sublime in defence and his workrate at the breakdown made it difficult for Exeter Chiefs. Our nod goes to Exeter Chiefs flyhalf Gareth Steenson, whose boot proved to be the difference between the two sides, while his counterpart Owen Farrell seemed to suffer from fatigue,
For Exeter Chiefs:
Tries: Nowell, Simmonds
Pens: Steenson 2
Tries: Wyles, Mike Ellery
Pens: Farrell 2
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Phil Dollman, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 James Short, 10 Gareth Steenson (captain), 9 Stuart Townsend, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Don Armand, 6 Kai Horstmann, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Carl Rimmer, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Mitch Lees, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Will Chudley, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Michele Campagnaro
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell (captain), 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Titi Lamositele, 18 Petrus Du Plessis, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Mike Ellery
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant referees: Craig Maxwell-Keys, Ross Campbell
TMO: Stuart Terheege