Chiefs 31 Sarries 13
Exeter Chiefs 31
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Santa Claus isn't due to deliver for another two days, but the Exeter Chiefs ensured their supporters Christmas came early as they returned to the top of the Gallagher Premiership for the festive period.
Rob Baxter's side produced their best display of the season to not only leapfrog rivals Saracens at the summit, but at the same inflict a first defeat on the Londoners for 22 games.
This was not just a victory, this was an emphatic statement of intent from the Devonians, whose second half display not only yielded maximum reward, but also helped to heal some of the bitter wounds from last May's Premiership Final, when Mark McCall's side denied the Chiefs of reclaiming their top-flight crown.
There is no doubt these two giants of the English game will meet again this season, quite possibly in the end-of-season showpiece once more, but for now the Chiefs can tuck into their turkey safe in the knowledge that this was indeed a significant moment in the season so far.
Undone on home soil for the first time since February last time out by Gloucester, the Chiefs rectified that hiccup by then travelling to Kingsholm just six days later and downing the Cherry & Whites to keep alive their European aspirations.
The thought, however, of losing two successive games at fortess Sandy Park was something that the Chiefs were clearly not entertaining. That has not happened for over two years and Director of Rugby Baxter was determined his side stood up and be counted in the heat of this latest battle.
Although forced to make a last-gasp change to his starting line-up when Jack Yeandle went down with illness, Baxter had the perfect, ready-made replacement in Luke Cowan-Dickie to come into the Exeter front-row and fill the void.
Featuring for the first time since mid-October, the Cornishman was his usual energetic, all-action self, throwing himself into collisions and producing a hour-long showing that showed no sign of ring-rust anywhere.
The England international claimed his side's opening converted try, helping to cancel out two early penalties from Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell.
Gareth Steenson slotted a successful penalty with the last action of the half, before the Chiefs really cut loose after the break.
The home pack were almighty, particularly in the close-quarter exchanges, and were duly rewarded with scores for Harry Williams, a penalty try, and a late fourth from Matt Kvesic, which sealed the bonus point.
In reply, Ben Spencer snuck over for a converted score for the visitors, but that was their own real moment of cheer in a second period in which the Chiefs ruled the roost.
Not that it was looking that way in the opening minutes of an absorbing and physical encounter. Saracens dominated the early possession and territory, using the boot of Farrell and full-back Alex Goode to pin the Chiefs back deep inside their own half.
It's a tactic which has served them well for numerous years - and with an equally impressive linespeed defence - the visitors were like a hungry anaconda in the opening quarter, literally squeezing the life out of their lives.
Farrell kicked them in front with a sixth-minute effort, before he doubled their tally five minutes later with a second penalty from in front of the Exeter posts, this after Steenson had raced across well to somehow deny Vincent Koch from claiming the game's opening try.
The lead was no more than the visitors deserved, given their strong opening to the match. However, as the half started to tick by, so the Chiefs began to find their rhythm. A penalty to the corner allowed them their first real sniff of the line, but the defiant Saracens defence held them at bay, eventually winning turnover possession.
The visitors, though, made a hash of their attempts to clear, Spencer's box-kick charged down by the imposing frame of Sam Skinner and there was Cowan-Dickie to pounce on the loose ball and score. Referee Tom Foley wanted to check Skinner's starting position for his part in the build-up, but a quick glance at the big screens confirmed the Exeter man was perfectly positioned and the score - converted by Steenson - was duly awarded.
Up and running, the Chiefs continued to press forward and although they won at least two kickable penalties as half time approached, each time they opted for greater reward by kicking to the corner. Each time, Saracens held firm, but the attacking intent had been sounded by the home side.
With both front-rows falling foul of Foley at scrum time, it was the last set-piece of the half, where Steenson this time opted for a shot at the target. His kick, as so often happens, sailed between the sticks and the Chiefs were seven points up at the turn.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 10 SARACENS 6
The second half was barely three minutes old when Sarries had a chance to reduce the deficit. Having tested the Chiefs with the old 'up-and-under', it was home prop Tomas Francis who was singled out for holding on, allowing Farrell his latest kick at goal.
This time round, the England and British Lions star - normally so deadly from the kicking tee - saw his lengthy effort cannon back off the left post and into the arms of a waiting Chiefs.
Threat averted, it was now the turn of the Chiefs to test their rivals out under the high ball. Sarries winger Alex Lewington had the proverbial 'mare' in dealing with a succession of hanging kicks, while replacement Schalk Burger fared no better when Tom O'Flaherty led a superb kick-chase to win his side a brilliant turnover deep behind enemy lines.
Although nothing initially came from that threat, the Chiefs continued to pile forward. Indeed, they thought they had claimed their second try of the afternoon just past the hour mark when Elvis Taione appeared to have squirmed his way over. Countless TV checks were reviewed, but in the end it was deemed the Tongan hooker had been held at bay.
The Chiefs, however, had the bit between their teeth and when they regrouped around the resultant scrum, they used a series of pick-and-go drives to work the opening for Williams to find his way over for the try, which Steenson duly converted.
Sandy Park duly erupted into a crescendo of noise, but that was nothing to what followed just four minutes later. Again, the home pack were at the heart of the matter, using another penalty to the corner to set up their tried-and-tested, catch-and-drive line-out, just metres out.
There are plenty in European Rugby that know what happens next - and Saracens are no strangers to that fact - but as they, and so many others have found to their peril, trying to halt the Exeter eight - or 12 in this case - is no easy matter.
Possession secured at the front by Don Armand, the drive was duly applied and as it made it's way towards the line, former Springbok Burger put his body on the line, hauling down the maul illegally as it was set to strike. Referee Foley had no option but to go under the posts for the penalty try. Burger, meanwhile, was packing for a ten-minute stint on the sidelines.
Champion sides, however, never know when they are beaten and to their credit, they responded with a late consolation score of their own. Determined work through the middle saw them gain decent yardage, replacement prop Christian Judge cantered away from a ruck, and when the on-loan Cornish Pirates forward was thwarted, he was able to feed Spencer who made no mistake from close range.
It brought a little sparkle of joy for the travelling contingent, but that was soon doused by the Chiefs in a powerful final conclusion to the match. Again, Saracens coughed up a soft penalty; again the Chiefs went to the corner.
And, just as they had done previously, the mass of home forwards assembled as one to this time propel Kvesic over for the all-important fourth score, which was converted with aplomb by Joe Simmonds.
Wild celebrations marked the final whistle for many inside Sandy Park, but for the Chiefs a more reserved approach was adopted as they trudged down the victory tunnel. They know tougher assignments lie ahead, the first of which will come in less than a week with their final outing of 2018 at Northampton's Franklin's Gardens.
Exeter Chiefs: J Simmonds; S Cordero, I Whitten, S Hill (O Devoto 57), T O’Flaherty; G Steenson (capt, P Dollman 78), J Maunder (N White 57); A Hepburn (B Moon 51), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 57), T Francis (H Williams 51); D Dennis (M Lees 57), S Skinner; S Lonsdale (T Lawday 65), D Armand, M Kvesic.
Tries - Cowan-Dickie, Williams, Penalty Try, Kvesic; Conversions - Steenson (2), Penalty Try; Penalty - Steenson
Saracens: A Goode; A Lozowski, N Tompkins, B Barritt (capt, M Gallagher 21, D Day 72), A Lexington; O Farrell, B Spencer; M Vunipola (R Barrington 68), J George (T Woolstencroft 62), V Koch (C Judge 60); N Isiekwe, G Kruis; M Rhodes (W Skelton 45), C Clark (S Burger 52, T Whiteley 79), B Earl.
Try - Spencer; Conversion - Farrell; Penalties - Farrell (2)
Yellow Card: Burger
Referee: T Foley