Saracens 38 Chiefs 7
Exeter Chiefs 7
Mark Stevens at Allianz Park
On so-called ‘Star Wars Day’, Exeter Chiefs felt the full force of the Gallagher Premiership’s Dark Lords as Saracens powered their way to all five points in this top of the table battle at Allianz Park.
Mark McCall’s side not only cut Exeter’s lead at the summit to just four points with one round of the regular season remaining, but they revved up for next week’s Champions Cup Final with a confidence-boosting display that yielded five tries.
Alex Lewington’s converted try was all that separated the two rivals at the break, after which the home side ran riot with a second for Lewington, one for Nick Tompkins, before replacement Dom Morris claimed a brace himself to put the seal on an impressive performance.
The Chiefs offered a decent resistance for large parts of the contest, but their scant reward was a converted try for England Under-20s youngster Richard Capstick.
With both sides already assured of home advantage in the end of season play-offs later this month, it came as no real surprise when both coaches announced ahead of kick-off a string of changes to their normal frontline personnel.
Saracens – with one eye on next weekend’s European encounter against Leinster in Newcastle – rested the majority of their ‘Galaticos’, including the likes of England stars Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Alex Goode and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy.
Equally, it was a day of opportunity for a number of the Chiefs first-team squad, Baxter handing first-ever Premiership starts to both Josh Caulfield and Richard Capstick in the pack, while behind the experienced Phil Dollman was recalled for his first league start since February on this his 150th top flight appearance.
The Welshman was afforded the honour of leading the Devonians into battle, whilst on the other side it was a chance for the home faithful to give a final Allianz Park to international duo Schalk Burger and Marcelo Bosch, both of whom will be retiring at the end of the season.
On a mixed day of weather in the capital – I think we had pretty much everything bar snow in the build-up to kick-off – it was the Chiefs who, with a strong wind at their backs in the first half, started the stronger.
Baxter’s visitors worked their way through a series of attacking phases during the opening quarter, but they were met on each occasion by a Black Wall of defence from the home side.
At the other end, the Chiefs were proving equally miserly, giving next to nothing to the defending champions, who pushed and probed in a series of attacks, but made little headway.
No.8 Tom Lawday threatened with Exeter’s best chance during the opening quarter, but he was held up and the chance came as quick as it went.
With little to choose between either side, the Chiefs were handed a helping hand when Saracens lock Will Skelton was yellow-carded for an ugly hit on Dollman. The full-back was sent crashing to the floor by the towering Aussie in mid-air. It didn’t look pretty on any of the subsequent replays, but the offficials deemed a yellow was sufficient.
Up a man, the Chiefs enjoyed their best spell of the half, laying siege on the home line. Caulfield, Capstick, Ben Moon and Luke Cowan-Dickie all threatened, but somehow they were repelled by some heroic last-gasp defence from the home side.
Skelton duly returned from the cooler to restore parity and with just a few minutes of the half remaining, the home side stung the Chiefs with a score out of nothing. Cowan-Dickie was stripped off possession deep inside the Sarries 22, the ball was cleared twice – both times catching on the howling wind – before it fell invitingly into the path of Lewington, who needed no second invitation to run in unopposed under the sticks for the score, converted by Malins.
HALF TIME SARACENS 7 EXETER CHIEFS 0
Lewington’s score had proved a sucker punch to the Chiefs, who having regrouped in the changing rooms during a ferocious half time deluge, re-emerged ready to get back into the heat of battle.
However, it was Saracens who flew out of the traps, scoring two tries inside the opening six minutes. Lewington was the first over, applying the finish after Richard Wigglesworth and Malins had created a gap down the blindside, before releasing the winger who was able to round the hapless Steenson for the score.
Bosch converted that score and a third for the home side, courtesy of Tompkins, who was given the simplest of tasks, after a marauding run from Skelton through the middle saw him bounce Steenson to the deck before he offloaded to the onrushing centre.
Up against it, the Chiefs needed to summon a rapid response. Winger Tom O’Flaherty came within a whisker of scoring, picking off a pass on halfway, only to be collared just five metres from the line by a brilliant cover tackle from Malins.
The visitors, though, were starting to find some form and having knocked heavily on the home door with some prolonged pressure by the posts, their efforts were eventually rewarded when Capstick burrowed his way over for a maiden Premiership score, converted by Steenson.
Moments later and the Chiefs were on the front foot again, this time through Max Bodilly, whose sparkling footwork got him clear of the cover and en route to the try-line. Saracens, however, scrambled sufficiently and having repelled the threat, they went down field to extend their lead, replacement Whiteley adding a penalty from in front of the posts after referee Ian Tempest had penalised Exeter for infringing at a ruck.
Saracens were seemingly in cruise control as the game entered into its dying embers. Messrs Bosch and Burger were afforded standing ovations as they exited stage right – and it was Morris, on for Bosch, who bagged the bonus point score for McCall’s side.
The replacement centre cut a lovely line in midfield to ease past Steenson for his first; then he was on hand to pick off a Bodilly pass on halfway to race unopposed for their final effort, which gave a somewhat glowing looking to the scoreline come the end.
All season these two rivals have looked the stand-out teams across the Premiership. However, it remains to be seen whether they will be matching up for a third time next month. Both will need to navigate their way through testing last four assignments, the fruits of which will all become a lot clearer in the coming weeks.
Saracens: M Gallagher (M Bosch 78); R Segun, M Bosch (D Morris 60), N Tompkins, A Lewington; M Malins (M Vunipola 72), R Wigglesworth (capt, T Whiteley 52); R Barrington (H Thompson-Stringer 50), J Gray (T Woolstencroft 50), V Koch (C Judge 50); N Isiekwe, W Skelton (D Day 58); C Clark, S Burger (S Reffell 69), B Earl.
Tries – Lewington (2), Tompkins, Morris (2); Conversions – Malins, Bosch (2), Whiteley (2); Penalty - Whiteley
Yellow Cards: Skelton, Judge
Chiefs: P Dollman (J Simmonds 19-29, 40); T O'Flaherty, M Bodilly, I Whitten (T Hendrickson 63), A Cuthbert; G Steenson (capt), J Maunder (S Maunder 58); B Moon (B Keast 52), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 52), T Francis (M Street 52); O Atkins, J Caulfield; S Lonsdale, R Capstick (O Kaufusi 58), T Lawday (T Salmon 63).
Try – Capstick; Conversion – Steenson
Referee: I Tempest.