Chiefs 43 Saracens 20
Exeter Chiefs 43
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
A week ago it appeared Exeter's Anglo-Welsh dream was hanging by a thread following their defeat at Worcester. Tonight, it's alive and kicking as the Chiefs booked themselves a home semi-final against Newcastle Falcons with this seven-try victory over visiting Saracens.
Having surrendered top spot to Harlequins heading into the final round of pool games, the odds were seemingly staked against Devon's finest with the Londoners needing to collect just a solitary point from their own trip to Northampton Saints on Friday night to ensure they would be the side to advance from Pool 2.
What transpired, however, was just the ticket for the Chiefs as not only did Northampton prosper 36-10 to seal their own semi-final spot - but, more importantly, they denied Harlequins any kind of reward and left them stranded on 15 points. That in turn meant Exeter would need to collect a maximum haul of their own to seal the all-important top spot.
With one half of the equation resolved, Ricky Pellow sent his Chiefs side into battle with a clear and precise message - win, collect four tries, and in the process try and score as many points as possible.
And, as it turned out, his players delivered on every front, scoring seven tries through Tom O'Flaherty (2), Ollie Devoto (2), Moray Low, Jack Maunder and Paul Davis, while fly-half Joe Simmonds completed the scoring by landing four conversions with his right boot.
Saracens, to their credit, played their part in front of a near sell-out crowd and headed home with four tries of their own, courtesy of Tom Whiteley, Rotimi Segun, Max Malins and Tom Lindsay. However, it was never enough to thwart the Chiefs, who will now ready themselves for a home semi-final against Newcastle Falcons next month.
Ahead of kick-off, Pellow made eight changes to his starting line-up from the previous week at Sixways. Into the pack came Jack Innard, Greg Holmes, Wilhelm Van Der Sluys and Thomas Waldrom, while behind there were starts for Maunder, Devoto, Phil Dollman and new signing Santiago Cordero on the right wing.
Saracens, already out of the reckoning in terms of qualification, arrived in the Westcountry with a largely second string line-up. However, there was still a sprinkling of genuine first-team experience with the likes of Will Skelton, Nick Tompkins, Alex Lozowski, Richard Barrington and Juan Figallo all included within their match-day 23.
With personnel in place for both sides, it was the Chiefs who - as you expected - came out firing all guns blazing. Just five minutes had elapsed before the home side broke the deadlock. Innard, Low and Maunder were all involved in the initial attacking raid, before it was recycled to Waldrom to act as the battering ram deep inside the visiting 22. Although the No.8 was eventually felled short of the line, the ball was recycled at pace through the back division with Tom Hendrickson providing the scoring pass for O'Flaherty to dive over in the left-hand corner.
It was the perfect start for Pellow's side who continued to push forward in the early stages. A high tackle on O'Flaherty allowed Simmonds to kick the ball deep into enemy territory where the towering frame of Van Der Sluys won the resultant line-out. However, as his team-mates looked to bind around him, Welsh referee Elgan Williams spotted replacement Sean Lonsdale get in front of the maul and the chance came and went.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to pile forward and off their very next attack, the Chiefs doubled their advantage when Devoto was able to power his way over by the posts after Waldrom had picked up from the base of a close-range scrum to feed the England international on the burst.
Simmonds, whose older brother Sam will be playing for England in Italy tomorrow, banged over the extras to that score and Exeter's third, which arrived just three minutes later through Low. The Scottish international picked up his second try of the campaign when he was driven over from a five-metre line-out to put the Chiefs firmly in command at 19-0
Already three tries down inside the opening quarter of the match, Saracens needed to regroup quickly against the forceful Chiefs. Thankfully for them they did just that, cutting the deficit within minutes when some hard running from Daniel Temm saw him shake off the attentions of a couple of Exeter tacklers before he offloaded to Whiteley to scamper over in the left corner.
It was just the lift the visitors needed and they threatened again just moments later when Matt Gallagher caused concern in the home ranks with a clever chip in behind. Thankfully, the experienced Dollman was on hand to race across and cover the danger, before he was bundled into touch just five metres from his own line.
Although Saracens had the hammer down for a moment, the Chiefs were standing firm under the pressure. One particular hit by Julian Salvi on Skelton saw the imposing Aussie sent tumbling, creating turnover ball from which the home side were able to clear their lines.
Back on the offensive once more, the Chiefs lapped up more turnover ball to claim their all-important fourth score. Hendrickson started the move by fielding a lengthy clearance by the visitors, after which Kai Horstmann and Low combined to feed Cordero. With time and space, the Argentinian international wasted little time in showing why the Chiefs have moved quickly to acquire his service. His fancy footwork, coupled with blistering pace, saw him break clear of at least three defenders before he shipped the ball inside to Maunder to race in under the sticks for another converted score.
Again the visitors refused to lie down and in a spirited conclusion to the half, they bagged two tries of their own as first Segun crossed in the corner, finishing off good work from Max Malins, before the latter himself got in on the scoring act, driving over the home line with the last action of an entertaining first 40 minutes.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 26 SARACENS 15
The visitors, now with conditions in their favour, introduced England international Lozowski into the fray at the start of the second half as they looked to continue their fightback. The playmaker slotted in nicely to the fly-half role with Malins shunted to full-back and Gallagher moved to the wing in place of try-scorer Segun.
The change, however, did little to dampen the home fires and within seven minutes of the restart the Chiefs were again back on the scoresheet, this time through Devoto once again.
With the home pack having driven deep into the Saracens 22, the initial charge was halted when Hendrickson cannoned the ball off referee Williams in an attempt to spin wide. From the resultant scrum, however, the Chiefs replicated the same move which had worked a treat in the first half, creating the opening for Devoto to claim his seocnd of the afternoon, again converted by the trusty boot of Simmonds.
Not to be outdone, O'Flaherty then lay claim to his own try double, finishing off a slick handling move that had seen the Chiefs shift the ball from a line-out on the right to that of the winger on the left flank. His cool finish, outgunning Malins in the corner, was just what the doctor ordered and had Exeter already planning for a last four encounter.
Just whether that semi-final date would be home or away would ultimately be decided over the final quarter. Messages from the stands were continually relayed to the pitch about events going on elsewhere in Newcastle where the Falcons were themselves jostling for home advantage in the last four by trying to outscore the Chiefs in their own meeting with Gloucester.
With little to choose between either side at that stage, the loss of Exeter prop Low to the sin-bin, coupled with a try for Saracens replacement Lindsay, who was able to burrow over from a well-drilled line-out, meant it was the Falcons who held the edge entering into the dying embers of both matches.
The Chiefs, as they have proved over the years, never know when they are beaten and with four minutes remaining, they were given their chance to strike. Two successive penalties, the second of which they kicked to within seven metres of the Saracens try-line, gave them the perfect platform from which to attack. Davis, on his senior debut, found Van Der Sluys with the line-out, the shove went on from the home pack, and as it propelled it's way to the line, it was the former Exeter University hooker who emerged from the mass of bodies to take the acclaim.
It was a magic moment for Davis, who not that long enough was wondering whether he would be able to still have a career within the game after picking up a serious neck injury. Thankfully, a successful operation and the healing hands of the Exeter medical team have restored him to full working order, allowing him to savour this moment in the spotlight.
Although Simmonds' testing touchline conversion failed to land, the Chiefs were again back in front on the try-count. Now, all they had to do was see out their own contest and hope events in the North East remained as they were. Although the last two minutes felt like an eternity, both outcomes ended nicely for the Chiefs, who will now harbour high hopes of securing a place in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final for a fourth successive season.
Chiefs: P Dollman (H Strong 61); S Cordero, T Hendrickson, O Devoto, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Townsend 52); M Low, J Innard (P Davis 70), G Holmes (J Owlett 61); O Atkins (S Lonsdale 4, T Lawday 46-57), W Van Der Sluys; K Horstmann (capt), J Salvi, T Waldrom (T Lawday 59). Replacements (not used): J Kenny, S Morley.
Tries - O’Flaherty (2), Devoto (2), Low, Maunder, Davis; Conversions - J Simmonds (4)
Yellow Card: Low
Saracens: M Gallagher; O Morris, N Tompkins, D Morris (R Bird-Tulloch 72), R Segun (A Lozowski h/t); M Malins, T Whiteley (N Stirzaker 58); H Thompson-Stringer (R Barrington 52), T McElroy (T Lindsay 44), K Longbottom (capt, J Figallo 52); W Skelton (J Hayler 58), M Flanagan (D Cutmore 52); D Temm, S Reffell, J Nay.
Tries - Whiteley, Segun, Malins, Lindsay
Referee: E Williams (WRU)