Chiefs 38 Harlequins 40
Exeter Chiefs 38
Mark Stevens at Twickenham
For a moment there was hope………
In the end, it finished in despair as Exeter Chiefs surrendered their Gallagher Premiership crown to Harlequins in an epic final at Twickenham.
Rob Baxter’s side went toe-to-toe in a heavyweight showdown at English Rugby HQ, but it was the Londoners who trotted back over the Whitton Road with the seasonal bounty.
Just a week after producing an epic fightback to sink Bristol Bears in the semi-finals, Harlequins again left it late to end Exeter’s hopes of securing back-to-back titles.
Winger Louis Lynagh was their big game hero, the young winger striking twice in the last ten minutes to seal a memorable victory for Quins, who were celebrating their first title success since 2012.
For the Chiefs, this loss will certainly hurt. The wounds, some of which were self-inflicted, will need stitching over in the close season by Baxter and his players alike. However, Devon’s finest have been here before and we know how the story has continued since.
Sadly, a sixth successive final appearance on the trot could not yield a third Premiership gong for the Chiefs. However, they can - and they will - in the cold light of day, take great pride in a seasonal performance which augurs well for the future.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter stuck with an unchanged 23 from that which had seen off Sale Sharks in a bruising semi-final showdown just seven days earlier. Richard Capstick, replaced inside two minutes of that game, was deemed fit after a hefty head knock from Manu Tuilagi, while Scotland and British Lions star Stuart Hogg was again named on the bench.
Harlequins, meanwhile, made three changes to their line-up. They welcomed James Chisholm back into their pack, while behind there were starts for Caden Murley and South African powerhouse Andre Esterhuizen.
With 10,000 allowed inside for the fixture, it was Harlequins who got off to the dream start. Not even five minutes had elapsed when, with their first meaningful attack of the game, they struck with the opening points.
Marcus Smith drilled a penalty into the left corner and when they looked to drive off the resultant line-out, Matt Carley had no hesitation in awarding a penalty try as the Chiefs - mainly through the actions of Jonny Hill - illegally sacked the maul to the floor.
England international Hill saw yellow for his actions, whilst the Chiefs had to quickly regroup after the early setback.
Thankfully, Baxter’s side were able to regather their composure and within ten minutes had restored parity. The much-vaunted Exeter eight did the donkey work initially, after which they looked to crash over from two close-range, tap penalties.
As is the case, Luke Cowan-Dickie was his usual torpedo-like self, propelling himself at a rate of knots towards the try-line. Harlequins did enough to thwart the Cornishman, but the calvary was close at hand and two drives later it was lock Jonny Gray burrowing over for the score, converted by Joe Simmonds.
The travelling Tribe erupted into a wall of noise and they were given further reason to cheer just before the half-hour mark when, in a similar set=up to that of Gray’s score, the Chiefs worked the opening for Alec Hepburn to drive over.
Initially, the officials wanted clarification on the score, but the countless TV replays merely confirmed the obvious, the England man awarded the converted score on this his 100th Premiership appearance.
Harlequins, though, were in no mood to go quietly and with half time fast approaching they landed two decisive blows on the defending champions. Prop Wilco Louw grabbed the first, running round on a recycled move to barge his way over, before No.8 Alex Dombrandt strolled over for another with the clock deep in the red.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 HARLEQUINS 19
The sucker punches just before the interval were certainly untimely for Baxter’s side. However, the restart didn’t get any better as first they lost Alex Cuthbert - in his final appearance in a Chiefs jersey to a hamstring injury -before Quins exposed the numbers game out wide to add a fourth score.
With Cuthbert virtually immobilised, the Chiefs did their utmost in defence to cover the width of the pitch. Harlequins - with Smith continuing to pull the strings - exposed the Exeter issue, his looping pass to Joe Marchant allowing the centre to crash the ball up before slipping a simple pass to Esterhuizen in the left-hand corner.
Smith plundered a sublime conversion from the touchline to extend his side’s lead to 12 points and all of a sudden the Chiefs were in a spot of bother.
Up against it, the champions rallied and having won a penalty from a hefty shove at scrum time, they used the resultant kick to the corner to set their foundations for an immediate counter-attack.
Having won possession through Gray, his fellow forward amassed around him as one, driving the Quins pack back onto their haunches. Although they did well to repel that initial thrust, when the Chiefs recycled the ball at pace, there was all-action No.8 Sam Simmonds to propel himself over for his 21st try of the campaign.
Younger brother Joe slotted the additional extras and in an instance the Chiefs were very much alive and kicking.
Now with the ascendancy, it was the ‘Men in Black’ who started to crank their way through the gears. Don Armand and Sam Simmonds both threatened down varying flanks, before the Simmonds brothers combined in unison to send Ollie Devoto scampering in under the sticks for the try, again converted by skipper Joe, to put the Chiefs back in front at 28-26.
It was like two prized fighters trading blows, but it was the Chiefs who appeared to have the upper hand. Hogg set off on a scintillating burst from deep, only to be felled by a try-saving tackle from Joe Marler.
Then, the Chiefs declined a kickable chance at goal in search of further reward in the corner. Harlequins did well to evade that threat, but when Exeter moved the ball back inside, winning another penalty in the shadow of the posts, this time Joe Simmonds opted for the kick to stretch his side’s lead by a further three.
What followed, though, was crazy. With less than ten minutes remaining, Harlequins threw caution to the wind and with their latest foray behind enemy lines, they created time and space for Smith, the young playmaker goose-stepped his way towards the Chiefs line, drawing in two defenders, before shipping the ball to Lynagh, who brushed off two tacklers to score the try.
Smith converted that score and Lynagh second, which came just five minutes later, the speedster - son of former Wallabies fly-half, Michael Lynagh, diving over in the right corner after Smith had again picked off the Chiefs defence.
Harlequins were in ‘Dreamland’ but the Chiefs were far from finished. Indeed, Joe Simmonds’ restart was gobbled up by the rushing Nowell, whose heavy carry into contact, created quick ball for Hogg to race over with just over two minutes remaining.
Down by two, the Chiefs had to not only regather the restart but, more importantly, work their way almost the length of the field to steal a famous win. They huffed and puffed, but sadly it was not to be, Harlequins turning over possession, before killing the clock emphatically.
For the Chiefs, it was a case of so near, yet so far.
For Harlequins, seemingly dead and buried back in January when they sat mid-table with head coach Paul Gustard having departed stage left, it was a moment to cherish.
It capped a remarkable seasonal turnaround, one which will live long in their memories. For the Chiefs, it was a moment to ponder, especially given their heroics of the last campaign.
As Baxter’s side trooped back into the changing rooms, the hurt was clear to see. The battle had been lost, but the long-term war continues. Brace yourselves for it all to start again in earnest come September.
Chiefs: J Nowell (H Skinner 79); A Cuthbert (S Hogg 45), H Slade, O Devoto, T O'Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder (S Townsend 53);A Hepburn (B Moon 55), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 61), H Williams (M Street 72); J Gray, J Hill (S Lonsdale 74); J Kirsten, R Capstick (D Armand 45), S Simmonds.
Tries - Gray, Hepburn, S Simmonds, Devoto, Hogg; Conversions - J Simmonds (5); Penalty - J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Hill
Harlequins: T Green; C Murley (L Northmore 59), J Marchant, A Esterhuizen, L Lynagh; M Smith, D Care; J Marler, S Baldwin (J Gray 59), W Louw (W Collier 59); M Symons, S Lewies (capt, D Lamb 59); J Chisholm, J Kenningham, A Dombrandt.Replacements (not used):S Garcia-Botta, T Lawday, M Landajo, B Tapui
Tries - Penalty, Louw, Dombrandt, Esterhuizen, Lynagh (2); Conversions - Penalty, Smith (4)
Yellow Card: Smith
Referee: M Carley