Chiefs 47 Harlequins 38
Exeter Chiefs 47
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter may not be contesting for Gallagher Premiership glory, but they used their final outing of the season to remind their rivals that come next term, the Chiefs will again be a force to be reckoned with.
It’s been a mixed season for Rob Baxter’s side. Inconsistency, injuries and a blooding of a new guard have all played a part in a campaign in which the Devonians eventually ended up seventh in the final standings.
Not since the 2014/15 season have the Chiefs failed to hit the top four come the end of the regular season.
As mentioned above, there are an assortment of reasons for their plight. However, shackles off and with a record-breaking Sandy Park in full cry, the Chiefs came out firing for their final run-out.
Up against Harlequins – the side who nabbed their Premiership crown off them at Twickenham last season – the two served up a 13-try thriller.
In a nip-and-tuck encounter, it wasn’t until the final ten minutes that the Chiefs were eventually able to pull clear. Late scores for Marcus Street and Sam Maunder putting the seal on a performance that certainly augurs well for the future.
The two young Chiefs touched down alongside earlier scores from Jonny Gray, Stuart Hogg, Ian Whitten, Jack Nowell and Joe Simmonds, who also added six conversions. In reply, Harlequins countered with scores of their own from Will Evans, Joe Marchant, Aaron Morris, Louis Lynagh, Lewis Gjaltema and Tyrone Green.
From the outset, it was clear that both sides were going on the offensive. Exeter were first to show, working their way through a lengthy, multi-phase move that had the Harlequins defence scrambling. Then, at the other end, it was the turn of the visitors to show their worth, this time positioning themselves deep in enemy territory thanks to the combined efforts of their forwards.
On both occasions, defences ruled the roost before the deadlock was finally broken on 11 minutes, Evans benefitting from the bounce of the ball as he latched onto a clever clip kick over the top from Marcus Smith, who also slotted the resultant conversion.
Thankfully, the home response was not long in coming. With the Chiefs pack leading the charge, they positioned themselves to within sniffing distance of the line, only for Harlequins to cynically halt their path. It sparked some momentary ‘fisticuffs’ between the two teams, after which order was restored and visiting lock Matt Symons was sent to the sidelines for a ten-minute stint.
With the man advantage, it didn’t take the Chiefs long to make the numbers game pay dividends. Again, it was left to the forwards to do the hard yards, the fruits eventually seeing Scottish international Jonny Gray – aided by a decent shove from Richard Capstick – drive over the line for the converted score.
Home joy would prove short-lived, however, as Harlequins took just a few minutes to restore their advantage, Marchant the scorer on this occasion as the England man was able to latch onto a kick through from Danny Care.
The helter-skelter nature of the contest continued aplenty and offered watching England head coach Eddie Jones plenty of food for thought ahead of his upcoming announcement for the squad heading to Australia this summer.
On this showing, there were plenty who would have aided their cause, but it was Scottish captain Hogg who hauled the Chiefs back level, the full-back rounding off a sublime attacking move with a clever finish. Simmonds converted to put his side in front for the first time in the game.
The game was only a quarter of its way through, yet the crowd had already seen four scores. The try-fest, though, was showing no sign of abating and it was the visitors who were next to pounce, Morris the next to go over, the winger barging his way over from a Care pass.
That would be Morris’ last involvement in the clash, his actions in scoring the try forcing him from the field, meaning an earlier introduction for Luke Northmore.
Again, though, the Harlequins lead lasted only a couple of minutes as the Chiefs rounded off an action-packed first half with their third try of the day. Strong carries from Dave Ewers, Jacques Vermeulen and Stu Townsend created the platform for Simmonds to steal over for the score, which he was also able to convert.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 19 HARLEQUINS 19
If the first period had brought real entertainment, then the crowd didn’t have to wait long for the scoring spree to return on the resumption. Just six minutes had elapsed when the Chiefs claimed their fourth of the day.
With the home pack providing the home thrust wide on the left, their efforts sucked in the Harlequins defence, exposing a huge overlap out wide. Cleverly, the Chiefs spotted the men out wide, Simmonds feeding Hogg who was able to ship the pass to his right for the waiting Whitten to dive over.
Just as it was in the first period, the ‘you score, we score’ nature continued and it was Harlequins who hit back on 52 minutes. Smith was the architect, goose-stepping his way out of the clutches of two Exeter defenders, before breaking and offloading to Lynagh who was able to race in from just inside his own half.
That would be Smith’s last involvement as he – along with a number of other frontline stars – were withdrawn by coach Tabai Matson, no doubt keen to ensure energy levels were conserved with next week’s semi-final trip to Saracens very much at the forefront of their thoughts.
However, those thrust into the fray were quickly put on the defensive as the Chiefs attacked once more. A searing break through the middle from Ewers gave the hosts quality front foot ball, after which they recycled it at pace through a plethora of hands to Nowell, who won’t get an easier chance to touchdown in his career.
To their credit, Harlequins refused to go quietly and they hit the Chiefs with a rapid ‘one-two’ that restored their advantage. First, Gjaltema raced over, out-pacing Jack Yeandle after Alex Dombrandt had lapped up a fumble from Alec Hepburn to kick in behind the home defence; then Dombrandt and Marchant turned provider for Green to scorch over after a neat counter down the left flank.
Such was the nature of the game, though, you knew there was still time for some more points. Indeed, the Chiefs didn’t disappoint as they finished with a flourish late on.
They drew level on 69 minutes as great work from debutant Iestyn Harris saw the Welsh hooker produce a turn of speed akin to a winger to propel the hosts to within sight of the line. It triggered the Chiefs to do what they do best, keep it tight, and patiently suffocate their rivals into submission. Street eventually the beneficiary of those efforts.
Simmonds slotted the conversion to that score and Exeter’s last, which came with just a minute remaining. Cutting loose wide on the right, the hosts worked the ball at pace back across the field to Hogg, who applied the after burners, scorched clear of the cover, before slipping in Maunder for his maiden Premiership score.
It was a fitting finish for a game which had offered so much in terms of attack. For the Chiefs, they now have a rare rest period in which they can address some issues of this season, whilst at the same time creating a battle plan they know will challenge for honours next term.
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell (F Cordero 65), I Whitten (S O’Brien 32-40), H Skinner (S O’Brien 65), O Woodburn; J Simmonds, S Townsend (S Maunder 52); A Hepburn (J Kenny 65), J Yeandle (capt, I Harris 65), H Williams (M Street 52); J Gray, D Jenkins (W Witty 65); D Ewers, J Vermeulen, R Capstick (S Skinner 54).
Tries - Gray, Hogg, J Simmonds, Whitten, Nowell, Street, S Maunder; Conversions - J Simmonds (6)
Harlequins: T Green; L Lynagh, J Marchant, A Esterhuizen, A Morris (L Northmore 34); M Smith (T Allan 52), D Care (L Gjaltema h/t); J Marler (J Els 52), J Walker (J Gray 52), W Collier (W Louw 52); M Symons, H Tizard; S Lewies (capt, G Hammond 58), W Evans (J Chisholm 48), A Dombrandt.
Tries - Evans, Marchant, Morris, Lynagh, Gjaltema, Green; Conversions - Smith (3), Allan
Yellow Card: Symons
Referee: I Tempest