Saracens 38 Chiefs 22
Exeter Chiefs 22
Mark Stevens at the StoneX Stadium
It wasn’t just Tyson Fury who landed a knockout blow in North London this weekend.
Exeter Chiefs were floored in their hopes of securing a top four placing in this season’s Gallagher Premiership by a powerful second half onslaught from hosts Saracens.
Mark McCall’s side recovered from a half time deficit to inflict a potentially fatal blow on the Devonians, who have just two games remaining to try and bag a play-off place.
But unlike Dillian Whyte, who could not recover from the fist of Fury, the Chiefs still have hope entering into the final rounds.
Rob Baxter will take heart from the fighting spirit his side showed until the death, but it was the flurry of second half blows which came back to haunt them.
First half tries from Sam Skinner and Olly Woodburn had helped put the Chiefs in control at the turn, but it was not until late on in the second half that they troubled the scorers anymore when Stu Townsend snuck over.
Instead, it was skipper Owen Farrell who inspired the hosts to their victory. His 18-point haul not only helped earn him the man of the match award, but his overall control of proceedings was instrumental in securing scores for Elliot Daly, Sean Maitland, Nick Tompkins and Ben Earl.
Having exited Europe at the hands of Munster, Baxter and his players headed to the capital knowing their sole focus for the remainder of the season was that of domestic matters. With a top four placing firmly in their sights, the Chiefs arrived at the StoneX Stadium having made three changes to their starting line-up from that which lost in Limerick.
Two of them came in the pack where Marcus Street and Richard Capstick were brought in for Harry Williams and Dave Ewers, whilst behind Tom Hendrickson’s inclusion in the centre meant Slade was switched to the fly-half role for the first time in five years.
Saracens, meanwhile, were virtually at full-strength, parading a glut of international stars, many of whom were plying their trade in the Championship last season.
It was, however, the Chiefs who started the brighter, taking the game to Sarries in a powerful opening burst. The visitors hogged possession, working their way through a succession of attacking phases, the fruits of which finally brought about a penalty that Slade was able to land from in front of the home posts.
Exeter’s lead would prove short-lived as the hosts restored parity within five minutes, Farrell landing a similar kick to that of Slade after Alec Hepburn had been caught offside in midfield.
The points ignited the hosts and their legion of fans who had further reason to cheer just moments later. With a penalty midway inside the Chiefs half, the Londoners picked out Nick Isiekwe at the line-out, he fed Aled Davies, whose slick pass inside allowed Daly to cut his way right through the heart of the Exeter midfield like a knife through butter. Farrell converted to ensure a maximum haul.
Both sides continued to tear into one another as if there very existence depended on it, but it was the Chiefs who were starting to find their feet again. Winger Tom O’Flaherty could - and probably should - have done better when he had men either side of him wide on the left, but the pressure was mounting by the minute.
Using their heavyweight forwards to punch their way deep behind enemy lines, the Chiefs cleverly worked an opening down the blindside, Sam Maunder and Slade combining for the latter to make yards, before Skinner took up the charge and drove his way over the line for Exeter’s first try.
Just reward for their endeavours, the Chiefs weren’t finished there. Indeed, as half time approached, they regained the lead when more powerful carrying, this time from Messrs Vermeulen, Hendrickson and Whitten created the space for Woodburn to hot step his way in under the posts for a second try, this time converted by Slade.
Not content with their lot, the Chiefs came again, this time Whitten breaking out of defence with a barnstorming run, before linking up with Hogg, whose fast feet continued to propel the visitors forward at a rate of knots. The cavalry was close at hand, but try as they may, Saracens did just about enough to turnover possession in the nick of time.
Then, with one final first half raid, a late hit on Vermeulen from Billy Vunipola offered Slade another shot at the target with a penalty chance. Sadly, the England ace could not find his mark, drifting his lengthy kick just wide of the left post.
HALF TIME SARACENS 10 EXETER CHIEFS 15
If the first half had ended brightly for Baxter’s side, the second half was a different story as Saracens came out punching. An early Farrell penalty cut the deficit to two points, before the England and British Lions star instigated the counter-attack to the home side’s second try.
Having lapped up some loose possession from the Chiefs, he stepped clear of the Exeter cover, charging down field to create the platform from which his side could strike. Saracens, as they do so well, worked their way through a plethora of phases, eventually working the opening for Maitland to take the ball on.
With a clear mis-match staring him in the face, the Scottish international stepped off his left, leaving Street wrong-footed and clutching at thin air as he waltzed his way in under the sticks for the score.
Farrell added the extras to that score, before slotting a lengthy penalty to put his side two scores clear as the game headed towards the hour mark.
With a rising penalty count starting to really hinder the Chiefs, it allowed Saracens to start to flex their muscles. Farrell was at the heart of things, positioning his team deep into the Exeter 22. With little more than scraps to live off, the hosts started to turn their screw.
And it was from a five-metre line-out that they indeed extended their lead, Tompkins peeling off the back of a driving maul to secure their third try of the afternoon.
Baxter turned to his bench in a bid to freshen things up and it was two of those replacements, Billy Keast and Stu Townsend, who thought they had worked their way over from a rare Exeter foray into the home 22. Sadly, referee Craig Maxwell-Keys adjudged they had been held up and the chance came and went as quickly as it came.
At the other end, Saracens continued to go about their business, winning another penalty that Farrell was able to dispatch to edge them even further forward on the scoreboard.
The Chiefs continued to huff and puff, but having been held up over the line once again, it was Saracens who showcased their finishing prowess. A great kick return from Rotimi Segun off a Townsend box kick saw him glide his way past a flurry of defenders, before offloading to Earl who was able to race over in the right corner for the bonus point score.
Whilst the contest may have been dusted and done at that stage, the Chiefs were still fighting and with hopes of a losing bonus point high on the agenda, they threw caution to the wind late on.
Replacement Santiago Grondona was denied a score by a Sarries boot on the try-line, but when the Chiefs threatened again, this time there was no stopping Townsend - who on his return to the first team fold - looked lively, his cameo rewarded with his late touchdown.
Try as they may, the Chiefs pushed hard in the dying embers for a fourth score, but it was not to be.
Down, but not out, the Chiefs have it all to fight for in these coming weeks.
Saracens: A Goode; A Lewington (R Segun 60), E Daly, N Tompkins (D Taylor 71), S Maitland; O Farrell (capt), A Davies (I van Zyl 71); E Mai (R Barrington 60), J George (K Pifeleti 74), V Koch (A Carey 71); N Isiekwe, T Swinton (A Christie 47); T McFarland, B Earl, B Vunipola (J Wray 67).
Tries - Daly, Maitland, Tompkins, Earl; Conversions - Farrell (3); Penalties - Farrell (4)
Chiefs: S Hogg; O Woodburn (J Hodge 67), I Whitten, T Hendrickson, T O’Flaherty (J Simmonds 75); H Slade, S Maunder (S Townsend 56); A Hepburn (B Keast 60), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 60), M Street (P Schickerling 49); J Gray (D Jenkins 60), S Skinner; J Kirsten (S Grondona 62), R Capstick, J Vermeulen.
Tries - Skinner, Woodburn, Townsend; Conversion - Slade, Hogg; Penalty - Slade
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys