Chiefs 18 Saracens 15
Exeter Chiefs 18
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
The Exeter Boys are happy – and so they should be!
Rob Baxter’s Chiefs made it back-to-back wins in the Gallagher Premiership, producing a performance of true grit to see off old adversaries Saracens at a packed out Sandy Park.
It wasn’t vintage stuff from the hosts, but it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. On the day, they had more than the Londoners in most departments, sealing a vital victory thanks to tries from Tom O’Flaherty and Sam Simmonds with Joe Simmonds kicking the rest of the points.
Five penalties from Alex Lozowski kept Saracens in contention until the final whistle, but this was a victory to savour and one which the players royally toasted with a post-game pint with the fans in the nearby Pow Wow Bar.
Looking to build on their win at Bath the previous week, Baxter made a number of changes with the international trio of Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Gray and Jonny Hill all returning to the fold for the first time in a while.
Saracens, although minus the England pairing of Jamie George and Owen Farrell, were still powerful foes and it took them just four minutes to open their account as Lozowski slotted the first of his penalties, penalising Joe Simmonds for obstruction on his own 10m line.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs would have envisaged, but they responded well and thought they had claimed the lead just minutes later when Sam Simmonds appeared to power over from close range, following great approach work from Jack Nowell.
Sadly for the free-scoring No.8, the intervention of the TMO was to have an untimely bearing, as it was deemed home centre Henry Slade was in front of scrum-half Jack Maunder as he launched a high hanging box kick into the air.
A tough pill for the Chiefs to swallow, it didn’t get any easier for the hosts who then saw Joe Simmonds slide a penalty shot wide of the mark after Maro Itoje had been pulled up by referee Luke Pearce for infringing at a ruck.
Undeterred, the Devonians continued to threaten and when aided by some needless back chat from Sarries No.8 Billy Vunipola on two occasions, it allowed the Chiefs to go from an unlikely shot at target to now well within range, where Simmonds made no mistake this time to restore parity.
Home joy, however, proved short-lived as within three minutes the visitors were back in front, Lozowski landing another successful kick after Sam Simmonds was adjudged to have entered from the side at a ruck in front of his own posts.
It was a rough call on the England and British Lions forward, but together with his team-mates, they regrouped instantly to get themselves back on the front foot.
Declining a simple kick at goal, the Chiefs looked to go for the Saracens jugular with a penalty to the corner. It was a bold move and almost paid dividends as Gray took the line-out, switched it to Hill, before the remainder of the pack moulded as one around them.
Saracens, though, had read the move well and with South African prop Vincent Koch at the heart of the matter, the forward was able to do enough to get in amongst the mass of Exeter bodies, thwarting them just as they looked set to pounce.
The visitors had done enough to quell the home charge on this occasion, but when the Chiefs threatened again with the last play of the half, this time they made no mistake, claiming the game’s opening try.
Playing with advantage deep inside the Saracens 22, Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell and Cowan-Dickie all made decent inroads, before the ball was flung back to Joe Simmonds, whose sublime cross-field kick was plucked from the night sky by O’Flaherty, who leapt above the challenge of Aled Davies to touchdown.
Sandy Park erupted into a wall of noise, the like of which has not been heard since March 2020. It was, however, a moment to savour, even if Simmonds was unable to convert.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 8 SARACENS 6
With little to choose between the two sides at the break, the second period began just as cagey as the respective packs tore into one another with a ferocious gusto.
Saracens, as they do, used their effective kicking game to try and pin the Chiefs back into their own half, but when Hogg looked to clear the danger from one speculative kick, Ian Whitten failed to retreat sufficiently enough, gifting Lozowski another simple shot at goal.
Back in front, it was Mark McCall’s side who were looking to press home their advantage towards the end of the third quarter. Ben Earl – who spent last season on loan at Bristol Bears – led their charge, slaloming his way through the middle of the Chiefs rearguard.
It was a sprightly effort from the England international, but when the chasing calvary turned over possession, the Chiefs countered with deadly effect.
Joe Simmonds’ lengthy clearance put Saracens on the back foot, but it was O’Flaherty’s brilliant kick chase which did the damage, the home winger collaring opposite number Alex Lewington to win a penalty midway inside the visitors half.
The natives duly roared their approval to the actions of the ‘Men in Black’ – but it would get decidedly better just seconds later as the hosts made no mistake with the resultant five-metre line-out, combining as an imposing force to propel Cowan-Dickie – on his first outing as captain of the side – to the try-line.
Simmonds converted majestically from the touchline, before slotting a second penalty as the Chiefs moved nine points clear entering into the final quarter of the game.
Saracens, as so often has been the case, would not go quietly and as the Chiefs went into a period of ‘brain-fart moments’ they used the mistakes of the hosts to claw their way back into the game with two more Lozowski penalties.
It set-up a gripping finale to the match, but it was the Chiefs who offered the greater threat, working their way through a 20+ phases to get themselves within sniffing distance of the Sarries line.
The approach was perfect from Baxter’s side, but when the ball was flung out to Hill just metres from the line, the England man declined to pass outside of him where two team-mates were waiting – instead going for glory, only to be held up by a brilliant double tackle from Koch and Max Malins.
Thankfully, it mattered not as Saracens failed to make the most of the let-off. Instead, the Chiefs suffocated them in the dying embers, before retreating at the final whistle off the pitch and straight into the nearby bar.
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder; A Hepburn (J Kenny 71), L Cowan-Dickie (capt, J Yeandle 65), J Iosefa-Scott (S Nixon 52); J Gray (R Capstick 73), J Hill; D Ewers, D Armand (J Kirsten 57), S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): S Maunder, H Skinner, T Hendrickson.
Tries – O’Flaherty, Cowan-Dickie; Conversion – J Simmonds; Penalty – J Simmonds (2)
Saracens: M Malins; A Lewington, A Lozowski, N Tompkins, E Daly; A Goode (capt), A Davies (I Van Zyl 65); M Vunipola, E Lewis (K Pifelti 64), V Koch; M Itoje, N Isiekwe; J Wray (capt), B Earl (T Swinson 69), B Vunipola. Replacements (not used): E Mawi, A Clearey, T McFarland, A Christie, D Morris.
Penalties – Lozowski (5)
Referee: L Pearce