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- Exeter Chiefs
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Exeter Chiefs 27
Mark Stevens at the Twickenham Stoop
Exeter Chiefs handed out their own spot of capital punishment as they became the first team this season to record a league double over reigning Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins.
Having humbled Conor O’Shea’s side 42-28 at Sandy Park back in October, the Chiefs repeated the feat at the Twickenham Stoop thanks in the main to an inspired display from fly-half Gareth Steenson.
The Ulsterman (pictured) was simply scintillating all afternoon, spearheading a Chiefs game plan that their rivals simply could not contain. Not only did he plunder 17 crucial points with the boot, but he was involved in much of Exeter’s excellent work, which also included tries for Damian Welch and Luke Arscott.
Harlequins, for an hour at least, played their part in an absorbing encounter – and they were rewarded with an early try from winger Ugo Monye, as well as kicks from Nick Evans and Ben Botica.
However, when push came to shove in the last 20 minutes, it was the visitors who ruled the roost to secure a win that puts them firmly back amongst the division’s frontrunners.
Buoyed by a much-needed home win against London Welsh last time out, the Chiefs were forced to tinker with their winning formula as knocks to Hoani Tui, Dean Mumm and Jason Shoemark ruled them out of this away-day in the capital. Into the side came Alex Brown – for his first-ever top flight start – Welch and Phil Dollman.
Harlequins, meanwhile, also made changes to their side that saw off Sale Sharks the week previous. The biggest of which saw former All Black Evans return to the starting XV for the first time in three weeks in place of Botica; whilst Ollie Lindsay-Hague came in at full-back and Tom Guest was included at No.8 with Nick Easter switching into the second row.
Spurred on by a capacity crowd at The Stoop, the defending champions soaked up early Exeter pressure before stinging their rivals with their first meaningful attack. A line-out won wide on the right touchline was quickly shipped back inside through the home backs to the onrushing Monye, who cut a lovely line right through the heart of the Chiefs midfield to score the opening try, which Evans duly converted.
It was hardly the start Baxter’s side craved, but to their credit they made light of the early setback and responded in fine fashion as the deadly boot of Steenson quickly reduced the arrears to a point thanks to two penalties.
At the other end, Evans failed with a long-range kick of his own after Jack Nowell was pulled up by referee David Rose for straying offside, before Steenson fired the Devonians in front for the first time when some good approach work from the ever-improving Nowell and Sireli Naqelevuki crafted a third penalty for the visitors.
Sadly, the Chiefs lead would prove short-lived as within three minutes Evans re-established the home side’s slender buffer when he slotted a penalty of his own after Brown was adjudged to have dropped a scrum.
Then, on the stroke of half time, Harlequins had another chance to add to their tally when flanker Ben White was singled out for a soft penalty in midfield. This time, the Londoners could not capitalise as Botica shunted his kick wide of the left post.
HALF TIME HARLEQUINS 10 EXETER CHIEFS 9
After the break, the Chiefs wasted little time in sounding out their attacking intent as Nowell and Luke Arscott led the early raids. Initially Harlequins repelled the threat, but on a third foray in behind enemy lines, the home side failed to release at the tackle and up stepped Steenson to dispatch a fourth successful kick.
Again, no sooner had Baxter’s men got their noses back in front, but another soft penalty – this time by Jack Yeandle at a breakdown – allowed Botica to make no mistake with his second attempt at the target.
Just minutes later and Kiwi back Botica was doubling his tally as the visitors again fell foul of referee Rose, this time for coming in at the side of a driving maul from the home side.
It was end-to-end stuff as Nowell re-gathered the restart to get the Chiefs back on the offensive once more. A series of phases through the forwards followed, the last of which won Exeter another penalty that Steenson was able to convert with aplomb.
Baxter introduced the returning Craig Mitchell and Ian Whitten into the fray in place of Brown and Naqelevuki on the hour mark in a bid to add some fresh impetus entering into the final quarter.
And the move nearly worked a treat as Whitten latched onto a great break from Steenson through the middle, before offloading to Jess whose intended pass was spilled by Arscott as the full-back honed in on the home line at pace.
It was a momentary let-off, however, for Harlequins as the Chiefs claimed their opening try just moments later. Another incisive break from Steenson laid the foundations from which the visitors worked the opening for Welch (pictured) to claim his second try in as many games. Surprisingly, though, Steenson did not convert.
Exeter were the side with their tails up and when a clever chip in behind from Haydn Thomas fell invitingly for Steenson deep inside the home 22, it took a last-gasp tackle to prevent Nowell from adding a second try for the Devonians.
The Chiefs throttle, however, was down to the floor and with six minutes remaining they made sure of the win when Arscott scooped up a loose home clearance before showing some dazzling foot work to lead a merry dance around a clutch of home defenders and score under the sticks.
Steenson, who was sublime all afternoon, made no mistake this time with the conversion as he capped a man-of-the-match display with virtually the last kick of the game.
Baxter’s troops now have a well-deserved two-week break, before they ready themselves in the bid to tame the visiting Tigers on March 23.
Harlequins: O Lindsay-Hague (B Botica 19); T Williams, M Hopper (G Lowe 59), J Turner-Hall, U Monye; N Evans, K Dickson (J Burns 77); M Lambert, J Gray (R Buchanan 62), J Johnston; N Easter (capt), G Robson; M Fa’asavalu, L Wallace, T Guest (J Trayfoot 71). Replacements (not used): D Marfo, W Collier, C Matthews, J Burns.
Try - Monye; Conversion - Evans; Penalties - Evans, Botica (2)
Chiefs: L Arscott; J Nowell, S Naqelevuki (I Whitten 60), P Dollman, M Jess; G Steenson, H Thomas (W Chudley 75); C Rimmer (B Moon 77), J Yeandle (N Clark 77), A Brown (C Mitchell 60); T Hayes (capt), D Welch; B White (D Ewers 59), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter. Replacements (not used): J Hanks, I Mieres.
Tries - Welch, Arscott; Conversion - Steenson; Penalties - Steenson (5)
Referee: D Rose
Touch Judges: A Pearce & R Maybank
4th Official: M Fox
UP NEXT FOR THE CHIEFS: v Leicester Tigers (H), Aviva Premiership, Saturday, March 23 (5pm)