Premiership Final Chiefs 34 - Saracens 37
Exeter Chiefs 34
Mark Stevens at Twickenham
At times it was like a Rocky Movie, the two prized fighters trading punches until finally one of them delivered the knockout punch that settled an epic encounter of English Rugby’s two heavyweight clubs.
Sadly for Exeter Chiefs, it was they who were eventually knocked to the canvas, floored by a brutal final quarter from Saracens, who have now added a Premiership title to that of their European Champions Cup crown.
In what was arguably the most pulsating Premiership Final ever, it was the Londoners who edged this classic bout, which yielded a total of ten tries - five for each side - on a glorious day in the nation’s capital.
England hooker Jamie George helped himself to a try in each half, while there were further touchdowns for Ben Spencer, Liam Williams and Sean Maitland to go alongside 12 points from the boot of fly-half Owen Farrell.
In reply, the Chiefs - who dominated for much of the game - countered with tries from Nic White, Dave Ewers, Jonny Hill, Henry Slade and Sam Hill, together with nine points from the boot of fly-half Joe Simmonds.
However, it would prove not enough for Rob Baxter’s side, who have now lost on three occasions to their rivals in the end of season showpiece event at Twickenham.
Back for a fourth successive Premiership Final appearance, Baxter opted to go with an unchanged Chiefs starting line-up from that which had easily seen off Northampton Saints in the semi-final just seven days over.
Saracens, meanwhile, were at full-tilt themselves, buoyed by the news that skipper Brad Barritt had passed a pre-match fitness check on a hamstring injury he had picked up in their last four win against Gloucester.
With personnel in place and conditions perfect at the home of English Rugby, it was the Chiefs who made the dream start, breaking the deadlock inside 27 seconds. Joe Simmonds fired up a high kick-off, George Kruis mis-read the flight, allowing Alex Cuthbert to lap up the loose ball and propel the Devonians to within sniffing distance of the try-line.
As the Exeter cavalry rushed to the scene, the forwards initially probed, before Aussie scrum-half White took charge, burrowing his way over from close range for the score, converted by Simmonds.
The response from Saracens, though, was not only emphatic, but rapid as Mark McCall’s side grabbed their first try on four minutes. Looking to go wide off their first meaningful possession, an attempted intercept from Henry Slade saw him deliberately knock the ball on just five metres out.
Referee Wayne Barnes - officiating in his ninth final - saw the indiscretion, but needed further clarification as to whether Slade was the last defender. Thankfully, there was cover for the Chiefs, but that did not spare the England international who was sent to the sidelines for a stint in the cooler.
It took Saracens less than a minute to make their numerical advantage pay, the European champions using the resultant five-metre line-out to combine as one and propel George over for the score, which Farrell was unable to convert.
Farrell, however, atoned for his earlier miss not long after, firing over a 30-metre penalty after Dave Ewers, playing his 100th Premiership game, was pulled up for infringing at a ruck.
With Slade still playing the waiting game on the sidelines, a series of brutal attacking waves from Sarries saw them position themselves deep behind enemy lines, the fruits of which were rewarded with a try for scrum-half Spencer, who snuck over from a metre or so out for the score, converted by Farrell.
Undeterred and with their numbers back to full quota, it was the Chiefs who were next to show - responding with some forceful attacking play of their own. Ewers, Dave Dennis, Matt Kvesic and Jack Yeandle all provided the hard yards up front, before the ball was worked out wide to the likes of Ollie Devoto and Jack Nowell, both of whom were able to create hot ball for their side.
Sarries were scrambling in defence and having done their best to repel the Exeter threat, a blatant professional foul from Maro Itoje saw him tread a similar path to Slade. Like the Londoners, the Chiefs made the most of their extra man, forcing the opening for Ewers to power his way over for a second converted score.
With the hearty Travelling Tribe now in full battle cry, the Chiefs continued to pile forward in numbers. Again, Saracens struggled to handle the sheer power of Baxter’s side, who having got to within inches of the line once more, worked the opening for giant lock Hill to drive over.
It was breath-taking stuff from both sides, neither of whom were willing to give an inch in the battle for supremacy.
However, as the half drew to a close, Farrell punished an error from England team-mate Ben Moon with a penalty, before Simmonds did similar at the other end, stroking over from in front of the sticks after Barnes penalised Sarries for standing up at a scrum.
HALF TIM EXETER CHIEFS 22 SARACENS 16
The half-time break saw Barritt depart proceedings with a recurrence of his hamstring problem and he was quickly followed by Spencer who lasted just a minute, before he needed to go for a HIA check following a hefty collision on halfway.
It was a disruption Saracens could ill afford and when they conceded a penalty early on, it allowed the Chiefs to fire the ball deep into their 22 through the boot of Simmonds. Sadly, they could not make the most of the opening, Kruis stealing the resultant line-out, thus allowing his side to clear down field.
Now pinned back deep in their own half, the Chiefs had to soak up a sustained period of pressure close to their line. Saracens pressed hard on numerous occasions, but Baxter’s braves were holding firm, eventually doing enough to relieve the danger.
Baxter threw on fresh stock with a completely fresh front-row, as well as a second outing of the afternoon for Sam Skinner, who provided the scoring pass to Exeter’s fourth try which arrived just before the hour mark.
It stemmed initially from strong carries by Cuthbert and Nowell, the latter of whom fed Skinner wide on the right. Still with plenty to do, the Scotland international opened his legs, before marauding his way down the touchline. As the cover came over, he slipped the ball back inside to Slade, who obliged with a majestic one-handed finish.
Saracens, though, are not the proclaimed rulers of Northern Hemisphere rugby for no reason. Not only did they brush themselves off, but in their very next attack they reduced the deficit with a third try of their own.Smart approach play got them on the front foot, before Farrell delivered a pin-point cross-field kick, which Williams gobbled up with ease to score in the right corner.
Farrell obliged with the extras to that score and a fourth Sarries try, 12 minutes from time, which restored their lead for the first time since midway through the opening half. In a powerful counter-attack, led by Wigglesworth and Ralph Adams-Hale, they worked the opening to go hands across the field, where the waiting Maitland was on hand to dot down in the left corner.
It was a decisive moment in the context of the game and from their it was Sarries who strengthened their grip on the contest like an anaconda that had not eaten for months. Happy to pen the Chiefs back at every opportunity, they were making their rivals work overtime to just clear their lines.
Farrell had the chance to extend his side’s advantage with a penalty five minutes from time, but he surprisingly shanked it wide of the left post.
The relentless nature of Sarries, though, is that they never know when they are done and when they made the most of a loose Exeter line-out just five metres from their own try-line, they adopted Exeter’s tried-and-trusted route one approach, Billy Vunipola popping the final pass to George to claim his second of the game.
In an instance, Exeter’s dream of landing a second Premiership crown had been ripped from their grasp. Brutal to the extreme, sadly there would be no let revival for Baxter’s side, who had given everything, but in the end had once again come up short.
To their credit, the Chiefs did have the final say, replacement Sam Hill gobbling up a loose line-out to power over for a fifth score. Sadly, it was all too late and it was the ‘Men in Red’ who were celebrating on the podium for a fourth time in five years.
Exeter will come again, there is no doubt about that, but for now they must once again swallow the bitter pill of defeat.
Chiefs: J Nowell (G Steenson 70); A Cuthbert (S Hill 62), H Slade, O Devoto, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, N White (J Maunder 66); B Moon (A Hepburn 47), J Yeandle (capt, L Cowan-Dickie 47), H Williams (T Francis 47); D Dennis (S Simmonds 70), J Hill (S Skinner 50); D Ewers, D Armand (S Skinner 26-36), M Kvesic.
Tries - White, Ewers, J Hill, Slade, S Hill; Conversions - J Simmonds (3); Penalty - J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Slade
Saracens: A Goode; L Williams (D Strettle 78), A Lozowski, B Barritt (capt, N Tompkins h/t), S Maitland; O Farrell, B Spencer (R Wigglesworth 41); R Barrington (R Adams-Hale 66), J George, V Koch (C Judge 72); W Skelton (M Rhodes 49-59, T Woolstencroft 70), G Kruis; M Itoje, J Wray (N Isiekwe 57), B Vunipola.
Tries - George (2), Spencer, Williams, Maitland; Conversions - Farrell (3); Penalties - Farrell (2)
Yellow Card: Itoje
Referee: W Barnes