Chiefs 17 Harlequins 15
Exeter Chiefs 17
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
The mark of a championship winning side is that when they need to, they somehow find a way to pull through and get the result that so often crave.
Never at their best – in fact Harlequins were the more dominant side for large parts of this contest – Exeter Chiefs had enough about them to not only see off the visiting Londoners, but at the same time accrue the victory that will ensure they end the regular season as the top dogs of the Gallagher Premiership.
For the opening 20 minutes at a gusty Sandy Park, Rob Baxter’s were majestic in all that they did. They purred perfection, yielding tries for Ollie Devoto and Nic White, the first of which was converted by the boot of young fly-half Joe Simmonds.
Paul Gustard’s side simply could not live with the threat of the Devonians, who were pitch perfect in all areas of the game. However, 12 points to the good, it was like the switch was flipped and with it the Chiefs curtailed their ambition which had served them so well in the opening quarter.
The remainder of the first half saw both sides slug it out in a decent enough arm wrestle, but it was only a Marcus Smith penalty that warranted any real mention as the half drew to a close.
The second period again started well enough for the Chiefs, who extended their lead with a close-range score for England international Harry Williams, but that would prove the last of the real highlights for the home side, who having lost Ben Moon to a yellow card had to withstand a late rally from Quins.
Tries from Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Charlie Walker hauled them back into the contest, but with only one of them converted by Smith, who also missed a late penalty chance as well, it was nail-biting stuff for the majority of those who formed part of the capacity crowd.
In the end, the Chiefs just about held on, sealing a 16th league win of the campaign. However, Baxter was in no mood to really celebrate, instead opting to remind his players and the assembled media that his team will need to be much better come play-off time.
Undone on home soil last time out for the first time in 14 months by Wasps, Baxter was hoping the two-week break between games would allow not only some time to reflect on a rare setback on Devon soil, but the chance to recharge the batteries and go after a Harlequins, who themselves were looking to do the double over their hosts having won the earlier meeting between the two 28-26 back in November.
Injuries to Luke Cowan-Dickie, Don Armand, Jack Nowell and Santiago Cordero meant Baxter was forced into change, but he was buoyed by the return of key forwards Dave Dennis and Jonny Hill, as well as Tom O’Flaherty and Phil Dollman in the back division.
Harlequins, meanwhile, were looking to get their campaign back on track having won only once in their last six games in all campaigns. They arrived in the sun-drenched Westcountry with a powerful array of talent, which included England quintet Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Jack Clifford, Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown.
From the outset, though, it was the Chiefs who set the tone and with just two minutes on the clock, they opened the scoring with a try of wonder. Initial phase play saw White feed Simmonds, who in turn picked out Dave Ewers on a marauding run. The imposing flanker cut a sublime line through the heart of the visiting midfield, drawing in the cover, before shipping the ball to a grinning Devoto for the opening try.
Simmonds obliged with the extras to that score, but not for Exeter’s second which, based on the first, was even better again. Working their way through the phases, it totaled 27 come the end, the handling, the decision-making and the final execution was the stuff of dreams. Harry Williams, Jack Yeandle and Matt Kvesic were all involved in the latter parts, before Aussie scrum-half White burrowed his way over from just a few yards out.
Harlequins were clearly rocked by the powerful opening from the table-topping Chiefs, but they recovered well. Brown went close for them, only to be bundled into touch just five metres out, before heavy pressure again saw Marler and Robshaw both make decent inroads before possession was turned over just inches from the home line.
The Chiefs did well to stave off the threat of pretty much everything Harlequins could throw at them, but with issues up front – particularly at scrum time – the visitors were never really going away. In the end, a Smith penalty on the stroke of half time helped to get them finally up and running.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 12 HARLEQUINS 3
The interval was much needed for the Chiefs, who used the 15-minute rest to regather their focus. Whatever was said in the home changing rooms, it clearly had the desired effect as the ‘Men in Black’ set about the second period at a rate of knots.
Just as they had kicked started the first period on the front foot, so the second began just as well as Sam Hill – celebrating his 100th Premiership outing for the club – cut a brilliant line through the middle to put his side deep behind enemy lines.
Although the replacement was felled shy of the try-line, White was close at hand, sniping to within a few inches, after which the bulking frame of Williams drove over the whitewash. Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys was unsure to the validity of the score, but a quick conflab with TV match official Geoff Warren ruled in favour of the home side.
Ahead by two converted scores, many predicted the Chiefs to kick on further and wrap up the bonus point come the final whistle. Instead, Harlequins injected fresh muscle from the bench and it quickly had the desired effect.
Hooker Elia Elia was one of those added to the fray and his first meaningful intervention was to hack on a spilled kick-off from Simmonds. In the subsequent foot race to the try-line, he battled it out with White in a somewhat mis-match shoulder barge, but in the process of trying to dot down on the loose ball, he knocked on and the chance was chalked off.
The visiting threat, however, was building with Elia once more going close, as did Fijian powerhouse Semi Kunatani.
With the Chiefs down a man following the sin-binning of Moon for dropping a scrum, the visitors wasted little time in making their numerical advantage pay. Heavy bombardment close to the home posts saw the Quins’ pack press and probe, before scrum-half Hidalgo-Clyne dived with the ball at the foot of the post.
Try award, conversion landed by Smith, all of a sudden it was the ‘Capital City Slickers’ who had the bit between their teeth. The Chiefs were guilty of causing no end of problems for themselves with some dodgy decision-making, sloppy passing and poor indiscipline.
It all combined to give Harlequins the boost they needed and when Hidalgo-Clyne’s cheeky grubber in behind was gathered by Alofa Alofa, again they had the front foot ball they craved. Using the extras man out wide, they worked the opening for Walker to steal over in the right corner.
Smith failed with the testing touchline conversion – and then with a difficult penalty chance with just five minutes remaining – as the Chiefs nervously looked to preserve their slender advantage.
Thankfully, the Chiefs did just enough to stave off that threat, before cleverly killing out the final moments of the match. The blast of the whistle was greeted with huge cheer, but not so much from Baxter who knows his team will need to be much better than this come play-off time.
Next up for them, a trip to London where defending champions Saracens lie in wait at Allianz Park.
Chiefs: P Dollman (A Hepburn 63-72); T O’Flaherty, H Slade, O Devoto (S Hill h/t), O Woodburn; J Simmonds (G Steenson 52), N White; A Hepburn (B Moon 48), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 52), H Williams (T Francis 52); D Dennis (O Atkins 60), J Hill; D Ewers, S Lonsdale, M Kvesic. Replacements (not used): R Capstick, J Maunder.
Tries - Devoto, White, Williams; Conversion - J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Moon
Harlequins: M Brown; C Walker, A Alofa (J Lang 71), F Saili, R Chisholm (G Ibitoye 48); M Smith, S Hidalgo-Clyne; J Marler (N Auterac 65), R Buchanan (E Elia 48), K Sinckler (P Swainston 72); M Symons, S South (G Merrick 78); J Clifford, C Robshaw (capt), A Dombrandt (S Kunatani 48). Replacement (not used): N Saunders.
Tries - Hidalgo-Clyne, Walker; Conversion - Smith; Penalty - Smith
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys