Chiefs 42 Saints 12
Exeter Chiefs 42
Northampton Saints 12
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
London’s Calling again for Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs side as they powered their way into a fourth successive Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final with victory over Northampton Saints at Sandy Park.
As it was this time last year - and also in 2016 - reigning European champions Saracens will once again provide the sizeable hurdle that the Devonians will have to overcome in the end of season showpiece at Twickenham.
The Chiefs, though, will travel in confident mood, particularly given the way they dispatched the Saints in the second half of this encounter.
Having stormed into a 14-0 lead thanks to converted tries from Harry Williams and Joe Simmonds, Northampton countered to good effect to leave just two points between the sides at the break, courtesy of a penalty try and another touchdown from full-back Ahsee Tuala.
That, however, would be as good as it got for Chris Boyd’s visitors, who were then blitzed by a ferocious second half onslaught from the Chiefs. Dave Dennis and Tom O’Flaherty both bagged a try apiece to give the home side the breathing space they craved, after which replacements Sam Simmonds and Sam Hill both found their way over late on to spark scenes of delirium amongst many inside the stadium.
Now, all roads will lead to the capital once again for the Chiefs and their tribe of followers, all of whom will be in full battle cry ahead of this season-defining fixture.
A week after locking horns in the final game of the regular season, there was little change to the Chiefs line-up other than O’Flaherty was given the nod on the left wing ahead of Olly Woodburn - and Alec Hepburn was deemed fit enough to take his place on the home bench after missing out the previous week.
The Saints, meanwhile, took the opportunity to beef up their pack having felt the full force of the Exeter eight in the second half of the previous game. Into their ranks came Francois van Wyk, James Fish and Ethen Painter in the front-row, while behind Fijian powerhouse Api Ratuniyarawa was added at the expense of Jamie Gibson, who dropped to the bench.
With personnel in place and conditions perfect for running rugby, it was the Chiefs who started the brighter dominating the opening exchanges. Looking for a fast start, they tore into the Saints like a pack of ravaged beasts.
Early dominance had the hosts camped deep behind enemy lines, but the Saints did well to repel the threat with some resolute defence. The pressure, though, continued to pile on from Baxter’s side, who having seen Dave Ewers held just short of the line, broke the game’s deadlock on 16 minutes through Williams.
The England tight-head provided a clever finishing, spinning himself around a tackle just yards out, after Dave Dennis and Ollie Devoto had caused mayhem in the Northampton ranks with some heavyweight carrying.
One try soon became two for the Chiefs, who struck again - this time through young fly-half Simmonds - who was able to glide through a hole in the middle of the Saints midfield following a clever pop pass from the lively Devoto.
Both scores converted, it was the dream start for last season’s beaten finalists.
However, the Saints were far from done and having made the most of a kick out on the full by Exeter’s Nic White, they used the resultant play to win a penalty, which they banged to the corner. The Chiefs thwarted the first raid well enough, but when the Saints tried again with another set-piece move, this time there was to be no stopping the visitors.
O’Flaherty did his best to get in and amongst the masses of bodies, but in doing so the officials deemed he had illegally knocked the ball from the grasp of Fish in his attempt to score. A quick conflab between the officials ruled a penalty try should be awarded, as well as a ten-minute stint in the cooler for the Exeter flyer.
Back in the hunt and with a numerical advantage, the Saints struck again just moments later. Again, playing off a penalty advantage, Biggar went cross-field with a kick for Taqele Naiyaravoro, who was dumped just shy of the line by Henry Slade. The visitors, though, recycled at pace, working a lovely opening out wide on the right for Tuala to cruise over.
Biggar failed with the testing touchline conversion, plus a drop-goal chance on the stroke of half time, as the Saints looked to edge ahead at the interval.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 12
Having lived dangerously at the end of the first period, the break came at the perfect time for Baxter and his coaches, who used the 15-minute respite to not only re-affirm the home side’s game plan, but alsoaddress the one or two issues they had caused them concern during the dying embers of the half.
Whatever was said, it clearly had the desired effect as the Chiefs again flew out of the traps like a prized greyhound.
White’s clever box kick in behind pinned Naiyaravoro back deep in his 22 - and when the Saints infringed trying to clear their lines, the Chiefs smelt blood, sending the penalty into the left corner and setting up camp once more.
The set-piece, as so often the case, was gobbled up, the forwards amassed as one and having probed with a series of close-range raids, it was Aussie lock Dennis who bulldozed his way over the try-line for the score, converted with aplomb by the boot of Simmonds.
It was just what the Chiefs - and many inside Sandy Park had craved - but they had further reason to cheer just three minutes later as Exeter banged in a fourth score.
O’Flaherty was the finisher, latching onto the ball in centre field, before turning on the after burners and scorching his way past the flailing tackles of Biggar and Collins to score under the sticks.
Two converted scores clear again, the Chiefs were in pole position, exactly where they wanted to be heading into the final straight.
Both sides emptied their benches as the half ticked by, but it was those introduced from the Exeter side that really made their mark. They merely picked up from where the others had left, leaving the wilting Saints bruised and battered.
England international Sam Simmonds claimed his first league try since September late on, before Sam Hill got in on the act, adding the coupe de grace with the final score of the contest. Joe Simmonds happily obliged with the conversions to ensure he finished with an unblemished record, but by then the party was already in full swing across all four corners of the ground.
Baxter and his players duly celebrated their on-field efforts, but they know the job is only half done. Next week, it’s back to the cut and thunder of another final where, this time round, they will be hellbent on finishing the job off.
Chiefs: J Nowell; A Cuthbert, H Slade (S Hill 60), O Devoto, T O’Flaherty (G Steenson 73); J Simmonds, N White (J Maunder 71); B Moon (A Hepburn 52), J Yeandle (capt, L Cowan-Dickie 52), H Williams (T Francis 49); D Dennis (S Skinner 55), J Hill; D Ewers (S Simmonds 62), D Armand, M Kvesic.
Tries - Williams, J Simmonds, Dennis, O’Flaherty, S Simmonds, S Hill; Conversions - J Simmonds (6)
Yellow Card: O’Flaherty
Saints: A Tuala; T Collins, R Hutchinson, P Francis, T Naiyaravoro (L Burrell 62); D Biggar, C Reinach (A Mitchell 57); F van Wyk (A Waller 55), J Fish (D Dawiduik 58); E Painter (P Hill 55); A Moon (J Gibson 52), A Ratuniyarawa (D Ribbans 52); C Lawes, L Ludlam (T Wood 59), T Harrison (capt).
Tries - Penalty Try, Tuala
Referee: M Carley