Chiefs 14 Saracens 7
Exeter Chiefs 14
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs started the decade as an ambitious Championship outfit, keen to cut their teeth amongst English rugby’s elite. They will finish it, sitting top of the tree in the Gallagher Premiership having edged out defending champions Saracens in a post-Christmas cracker at Sandy Park.
Much has happened in the past ten years in and around Sandy Park, but the Devon venue won’t have experienced many better days than this latest episode.
It was pulsating stuff from start to finish. True, the rugby output may not have been of the quality seen on other occasions, but the fight and desire showed by Rob Baxter’s side easily overcame such a minor observation.
Nic White’s converted first half try gave the Chiefs a 7-0 lead at the turn, before that was doubled when South African flanker Jacques Vermeulen rumbled over for his maiden Premiership score after the break.
Saracens claimed a losing bonus point when they were awarded a late penalty try, but that was their only consolation on a day with the Devonians showcased their fighting spirit.
With tensions high ahead of kick-off, given comments made in the wake of Saracens being found guilty of breaking the league’s strict salary cap regulations, it wasn’t until three minutes from time that on-field matters eventually spilled over.
A touchline brawl saw players from both sides embroil themselves in a decent dust-up, the results of which gave Saracens the penalty from which they eventually claimed their only try – and saw Exeter’s England prop Harry Williams, already off the field having failed a HIA assessment, red-carded for his role in the mass melee.
That was the only dampener on the day for the Chiefs, whose four-point haul allowed them to regain top spot from Northampton Saints heading into the New Year.
Afforded first use of the strong westerly wind, Baxter’s side started brightly enough. The early collisions were like that of a heavyweight match-up, one in which both sides were not willing to concede an inch.
Six minutes had elapsed, however, when a loose pass from Owen Farrell to Max Malins, saw the latter spill the ball under pressure. Quick as a flash, Aussie scrum-half White was alert to the loose ball, fly-hacking it forward and setting up a sprint race to the try-line.
White, who had scored the opening try in last June’s Premiership Final at Twickenham, didn’t need a second invitation as he scampered like a prized greyhound towards the line. He won the race, ahead of Nick Isiekwe to give the Chiefs a dream start.
Joe Simmonds, yet to miss in the top flight this season, nailed the testing touchline conversion, bringing the ball back lovely with the use of the wind.
At the other end, Farrell soon had a chance to cut the deficit after Ollie Devoto had been penalised for side entry a ruck. However, the England skipper could not land the resultant kick, pulling it wide of the mark, much to the delight of the majority of the record 13,593 crowd.
The slug fest between these two giants of the English game continued aplenty. Ben Spencer went close for the visitors when he sniped off a close-range scrum, then Williams was yellow carded for his part in pulling down a Sarries driving maul just metres from his own line.
Despite the numerical advantage, the Londoners could drive home the resultant penalty, Jack Nowell this time producing a stunning turnover on his own try-line as Billy Vunipola looked set to pounce.
Williams duly returned to the fray, but it was Saracens who continued to threaten, Farrell surprisingly failing with a second shot at goal just four minutes before the break.
It was a let-off for the Chiefs, who with the final play of the half, were indebted to Joe Simmonds for a superb, last-ditch, try-saving tackle on Jamie George as the England hooker looked to drive over from a five-metre driving maul.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 SARACENS 0
Having been afforded a standing ovation as they trooped off for the break, it was a raucous home faithful who welcomed the Chiefs back onto the park for the second half of action.
Not a great deal happened for the first ten minutes following the restart, but when Duncan Taylor was adjudged to have not released at the tackle, Joe Simmonds drilled the resultant penalty deep inside the Saracens 22.
The visitors, like many others across Europe, knew what would follow from the Chiefs. The difficult thing, however, is knowing how to stop the Exeter eight when they are in full juggernaut mode.
The home pack adopted their simple, yet highly effective, pick-and-go game, inching their way towards the line. Having a gleaned a penalty, Nowell and Stuart Hogg were screaming for the ball to be fired wide into their waiting arms. The forwards had other ideas, rumbling their way forward, before Vermeulen found his way over.
Joe Simmonds, awarded the TV man of the match at the final whistle, drilled over another perfect conversion to put his side two scores clear.
It was no more than the Chiefs deserved. The Tribe were now in full voice and as Saracens threw everything at their rivals, every hit, every tackle, every turnover was met with a huge chorus of approval from the sidelines.
Still, Saracens were not done. Richard Wigglesworth tried to find his way over leading a chase out against Sam Simmonds, but he was outpaced by the Exeter No.8.
Elliot Daly and Wigglesworth then tried to combine, only to be thwarted once again. The pressure, though, was mounting and when Luke Cowan-Dickie, celebrating his induction into Exeter’s Centurions Club alongside close pal Nowell, was harshly pulled up for infringing in front of his own posts, Saracens had their chance to go for the corner.
Farrell kicked his side to within touching distance of the line, only for Exeter’s inspirational leader Dave Dennis to pluck the resultant line-out from the grasp of Maro Itoje. Again, it was celebrated like as if the Chiefs had scored a try.
As the minutes ticked down and Sarries looked like leaving pointless on all fronts, a confrontation between Taylor and White lit the fuse which had slowly been exposed. Players from both sides got embroiled in the subsequent dispute.
However, it was Williams, like the Caped Crusader, who sprang from the home bench to come to the aid of his colleagues. The flare-up continued until referee Barnes finally took control. He consulted with his fellow officials, before ruling against the Chiefs.
Tight-head prop Williams was the marked man. He was shown red and the visitors awarded a penalty. Still with a couple of minutes to play, they looked to get something from their afternoon’s toil. Using the set-piece as their weapon, the Sarries pack – aided by one or two of their back division – drove towards the line, only for their charge to be halted illegally.
Dave Ewers was the latest recipient to see a card from Barnes, who also awarded the visitors a penalty try for their efforts.
By then, Sandy Park was already in full battle cry, the ‘Tomahawk Chop’ ringing out from all four corners of the stadium.
There would be no late drama as Baxter’s side ruthlessly shut the game down. This was not only a hard-fought victory, but a victory which will have been savoured by many others away from the champions, given what has been revealed in recent months.
Chiefs: S Hogg (G Steenson 77); J Nowell, I Whitten, O Devoto (S Hill 59), O Woodburn; J Simmonds, N White; A Hepburn (B Moon 65), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 75), H Williams (E Pieretto 67); D Dennis (capt), J Hill (J Kirsten 55); D Ewers (E Pieretto 30-36), J Vermeulen (D Armand 71), S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): J Maunder.
Tries - White, Vermeulen; Conversions - J Simmonds (2)
Yellow Card: Williams, Ewers
Red Card: Williams
Saracens: M Malins (A Lozowski 55); S Maitland, D Taylor, B Barritt (capt, N Tompkins 65), E Daly; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth 49); M Vunipola (R Carre 65), J George, V Koch (T Lamositele 48); M Itoje (J Singleton 73), W Skelton (B Earl 49); N Isiekwe, J Wray, B Vunipola. Replacement (not used): G Kruis.
Try – Penalty Try
Referee: W Barnes