Exeter’s defensive masterclass secures victory in Saracens grudge match

The final Premiership match of the decade was fittingly fought by the two teams who have come to dominate it, some way ahead of the rest even if this time it was top against bottom with Saracens propping up the table after their salary cap punishment. The Chiefs, beaten in the last two Premiership finals by their wage-breaking rivals, were riddled with rancour but coldly detached like an assassin as they moved back to the top of the table.

The Exeter chairman and chief executive, Tony Rowe, was the most vocal of Saracens’ critics, stopping short only of demanding they be expelled from the Rugby Football Union, but he did not mention the champions or the affair in his programme notes, focusing solely on the club he has helped build into one of the strongest and most profitable in Europe.

That was the theme of the afternoon with the crowd greeting their team with a reverberating roar rather than jeering at the visitors: it was about Exeter, not Saracens or what might have happened in the last two finals had their opponents played by the rules. They came within two minutes of condemning Saracens to their first shut-out in the Premiership since the start of the decade when they were blanked by Wasps, despite spending most of the match in their own half.

Michael Bradley, the Zebre head coach, said last week that the Premiership offered the chance to catch up on sleep. “The dominant side is Saracens and the next one is Exeter because they basically hide the ball from the public for a year,” he went on. This was not about cheap thrills and was an engrossing clash of heavyweights that showed how Exeter have matured to the point where they are now competing with Sarries in Europe as well as being the overwhelming favourites to take their Premiership crown.

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Saracens spent 67% of the opening half in Exeter territory but trailed 7-0 at the interval. Two early handling errors led to them first conceding a prime attacking position and then giving away the opening try of the game when Owen Farrell’s pass in midfield went behind the full-back, Max Malins, who in fumbling for the ball gave Nic White the opportunity to kick it towards the line with the last line of defence otherwise occupied.

Farrell missed two penalties he would regard as gimmes but it was Exeter’s defence that kept the champions scoreless. Jack Nowell won a penalty after clamping on to the ball when Billy Vunipola had been tackled five metres out, Stuart Hogg hauled down Ben Spencer after Will Skelton had broken the line and the first half ended with Jamie George driven over the line following a maul but unable to ground the ball because Joe Simmonds somehow got his body in the way.

Simmonds and his brother Sam were to thwart Richard Wigglesworth in the second period after Farrell’s chip to the line. The Chiefs were by then 14-0 ahead after showing Saracens how to finish from close range, Jacques Vermeulen finding his way over after a penalty was turned into a lineout and then a driving maul.

Sarries had all their main players available, although George Kruis was unable to come off the bench after ricking his back warming up before the interval, but nothing they came up with worked. Twisted in the scrum and countered in the lineout, they lost the battle on the floor and that they left with a bonus point was down to the perseverance with which they have long armed themselves.

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After a spat between Duncan Taylor and White with four minutes to go escalated, Harry Williams, the home prop who had been replaced 10 minutes before, was sent off for joining in from the bench. Saracens failed to find their way over the line after driving two lineouts but were awarded a penalty try after the second because Dave Ewers entered it from the side.

“We were not good enough,” said the Saracens’ director of rugby, Mark McCall, whose side are 18 points adrift at the bottom and vulnerable if Leicester revive and the teams above them continue to take points off each other.

His opposite number, Rob Baxter, who said the club’s England centre Henry Slade would be out until the start of the Six Nations with an ankle injury, said Exeter’s priority had to be those around them in the top half of the table, not the bottom team.

“Sometimes the people who point out Saracens have cheated are painted as the bad guys but there are supporters of clubs who have seen coaches get sacked and players leave in part because of Saracens cheating,” Baxter said. “You can’t run away from that even if as a club we now move on.”


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