Harlequins 14 Chiefs 12
Exeter Chiefs 12
Mark Stevens at the Twickenham Stoop
It was seemingly a case of déjà vu for Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs side as once again rivals Harlequins left it late to secure victory at The Stoop.
Six months on from wrestling the Gallagher Premiership crown off Devon’s finest, the defending champions were again celebrating at the final whistle as Marcus Smith’s last-gasp conversion proved the difference in this latest Battle Royal.
The England international slotted the extras, cannoning his kick in off the post, to deny the Chiefs, who were forced to plenty the entirety of the second half with only 14 men following the dismissal of Alec Hepburn.
The prop was shown red by referee Ian Tempest for his part in a double tackle on opposite number Joe Marler, just 30 seconds from the end of the first half.
Harlequins had come out firing in the opening exchanges, taking an early lead through a converted score from centre Luke Northmore. However, the Chiefs would hit back before the interval, finishing off a sustained spell of pressure with a score of their own through Henry Slade.
Despite their numerical advantage, the Chiefs gave everything to the cause in the second half, initially soaking up a heap of home pressure, before silencing the natives with a try from replacement Jack Innard.
With the minutes ticking down at a rate of knots, the signs certainly looked encouraging for the visitors. That was until Smith picked out the giant frame of Andre Esterhuizen with a sumptuous cross-field kick that the South African was able to finish in style in the left-hand corner.
It was a telling blow, executed in destructive fashion, but it was Smith’s subsequent conversion that would floor the Chiefs once again in the capital.
Buoyed by their derby day victory over Bristol Bears the previous week, Baxter’s side arrived in the capital looking to build on that success.
Unavailabilities and injuries meant the Chiefs were forced into change, Jack Yeandle and Josh Iosefa-Scott coming into the front-row, while behind Jonny Gray was back at lock with Facundo Cordero and Ian Whitten added to the back division.
Harlequins were virtually at full-strength after Marler passed a fitness test just prior to kick-off. He lined up in a home pack which included former Chief Tom Lawday, as well as the much-talked about Alex Dombrandt.
The latter’s match-up with Sam Simmonds was one that the watching England coaches would have taken close note of – particularly with Eddie Jones set to name his Six Nations squad later this month.
The early exchanges, though, belonged to the home side. Harlequins wasted little time in sounding their attacking intent, taking just four minutes to open the scoring through Northmore, who was able to cross despite the best efforts of Exeter full-back Stuart Hogg.
It was the dream start for Tabai Matson’s men – and it could have got even better for them as first Danny Care, then Joe Marchant both threatened with half chances of their own.
The Chiefs were heavily under the pump, both in terms of possession and territory, but they would rally well enough to haul themselves back into contention during the second quarter.
Using their trusty pack of forwards, they wrestled their way through the phases, before eventually working the ball out to the backs, where Slade was afforded enough time and space to glide over unopposed.
Back in contention, it would be the Chiefs who would finish the first half the stronger. Dave Ewers and Jonny Gray were immense in their workload, whilst Sam Simmonds’ powerful bursts from the base of a series of scrums helped to give the visitors the necessary go forward they needed.
But, with less than a minute remaining on the clock, Hepburn and Sam Simmonds thrust themselves into contact with the charismatic prop, who was flung to the floor head first. It didn’t look great on initial viewing and when the officials asked to check it further, it was only a matter of time before Hepburn was found guilty for his actions.
Hepburn was duly dismissed and the Chiefs jogged to the changing rooms knowing they would be up against it when play resumed.
HALF TIME HARLEQUINS 7 EXETER CHIEFS 7
The second half was only three minutes old when the long-serving Ben Moon had to be summoned to fill the void left by Hepburn. It meant winger Facundo Cordero had to become the ‘sacrificial lamb’.
Sensing they could make the most of the numbers game out wide, Harlequins – just as they had done in the first half – came out firing. With Danny Care and Smith pulling the strings from half-back, the hosts fashioned a glorious opportunity out wide, only for full-back Tyrone Green to bomb a certain try.
Undeterred, the champions continued to pile on the pressure, declining a series of kickable penalties in search of greater reward. The Chiefs, it has to be said, were standing firm under the heavy bombardment.
Again, Green spurned another golden chance, this time on the right flank, before the Chiefs showed the hosts how it should be done in terms of being clinical in attack.
Using a smart, yet effective kick game, they not only cleared their lines, but at the same time built their own pressure, testing the home back three with a relentless work ethic. It was a tactic that was clearly working, eventually winning them a penalty of their own.
Just like Harlequins, the visitors opted for the kick to the corner. The first thrust was repelled with some scramble defence from the home pack, but when the Chiefs fashioned a second chance, there was to be no stopping them as Innard – aided by some additional shoves from Jack Nowell and Ian Whitten – burrowed his way over for the score, which Joe Simmonds sadly could not convert.
For the hearty contingent in the Travelling Tribe, it was a moment to savour. Fresh muscle was introduced from both benches as the strength-sapping conditions underfoot started to take their toll.
The Chiefs, though, were looking good value for their lead. Messrs Hogg and Simmonds were continually clearing the danger with their booming boots, whilst the Exeter eight maintained their determined work-rate in the tight exchanges.
With time fast running out, Harlequins – a bit like they did in last season’s final – threw caution to the wind, rolling the dice in search of maximum reward. And, as it proved, lady luck was again smiling on them as Esterhuizen’s dramatic score made The Stoop erupt into a wall of noise.
Smith still had to convert to put his side in front, but this he did, much to the heartache of the Chiefs, who must now regroup quickly ahead of next weekend’s return to Heineken Champions Cup action against visiting Glasgow Warriors.
Harlequins: T Green; J Marchant, L Northmore (H Jones 60), A Esterhuizen, C Murley (L Lynagh 63); M Smith, D Care (co-capt); J Marler, J Walker, W Collier (S Kerrod 60); M Symons, H Tizard (D Lamb 60); T Lawday, J Kenningham (J Chisholm 40), A Dombrandt (co-capt). Replacements (not used): J Musk, S Garcia Botta, S Steele.
Tries – Northmore, Esterhuizen; Conversions – Smith (2)
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten, F Cordero (B Moon 43); J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Maunder 74); A Hepburn, J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 52), J Iosefa-Scott (P Schickerling 60); J Gray, J Hill (S Skinner 58); D Ewers (D Armand 74), J Kirsten, S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): H Skinner, T Hendrickson.
Tries – Slade, Innard; Conversion – J Simmonds
Red Card: Hepburn
Referee: I Tempest