At a rain-soaked Sandy Park on Saturday afternoon, the Exeter Chiefs showed immense grit and determination to keep the in-form Harlequins at bay by the narrowest of margins; 26-25.
Considering the immense rain lashing down upon the pitch, such an exciting fixture would not have been forecast before kick-off. However, with both teams looking to play exciting rugby in the right parts of the field, this surely will go down as one of the great Chiefs afternoons.
Gareth Steenson got the scoreboard moving with barely a minute played, punishing Harlequins for not releasing in the tackle. Connor O’Shea’s men came roaring back with a succession of penalties won at scrum-time, eventually leading to a penalty try with 7 minutes played.
The visitors enjoyed a fruitful spell of pressure, regularly finding holes in a vulnerable Chiefs defence. A Steenson penalty was countered by a Nick Evans try, finishing off a perfectly weighted Danny Care chip through. Sam Twomey burst the Chiefs defence only for his offload to Mike Brown to be inaccurate. Dave Ward, playing at openside flanker due to a back-row injury crisis, found space on the blindside but his pass sailed behind Brown and into touch.
Slade responded with a moment of magic, dancing around Quins defenders in the narrowest of spaces on the left touchline, his impetus would eventually lead to a Steenson penalty, leaving the scores at 9-12.
However Harlequins roared back downfield, taking advantage of some unnecessary infringements from the Chiefs. Ever a crowd-pleaser, successive mauls saw the Quins gain front-foot ball and Charlie Walker finished in the corner to give the South-West Londoners an eight point advantage with half time on the horizon.
Somehow, the hosts would enter the break in the lead. Another Steenson penalty left the Chiefs with a five point deficit before on the stroke of half time, James Short provided the Chiefs the lead. The visitors, attempting to run down the clock by consistently picking and going, lost the ball and it was quickly flung wide to Short who showed great speed to score. Steenson’s conversion was perfect considering the blustery conditions and the Chiefs marched into the changing rooms two points ahead. Joe Marler was left remonstrating with the referee for no apparent reason.
The Second Half did not start brightly for the Chiefs, the normally reliable Phil Dollman knocked-on inside his own half and the resultant scrum handed Harlequins an easy three points. The visitors piled on the pressure, outside centre George Lowe knocked on with the try line beckoning and the Chiefs were committing too many errors.
However the scoreline remained within reach for the hosts, and with Dave Ewers, Tom Johnson and Thomas Waldrom winning the battle at the breakdown, they were well in the contest. Incisive running, orchestrated by Steenson and Slade, became too much for Quins to handle and after giving away numerous penalty advantages, Steenson dotted down. Having converted his own score, the Chiefs were ahead 26-20 with 57 minutes gone.
There would be yet another twist in this top-of-the-table clash. Substitute hooker Elvis Taione would be sin binned for using no arms in the tackle and the visitors subsequently profited, albeit via the corner flag. Brown’s kick through for Tim Visser appeared to be too heavy but the ball cannoned off the corner flag and into the grateful arms of Visser. Evans’ replacement, Tim Swiel, missed the conversion which left the Chiefs with a one-point advantage.
With 17 minutes still left to play, Harlequins threw everything they had at the Chiefs tryline. Despite desperate defence from Ewers, Whitten and the newly-introduced Geoff Parling, the hosts yielded a penalty opportunity for Swiel. Man of the Match Tom Johnson was sin-binned in the process. Under pressure, and with the wind blowing the ball off the kicking tee, the South African missed the target with only two minutes left, much to the relief of the loud home support.
Sloppy errors allowed Exeter to close out a tense and hard-fought victory 26-25. The Chiefs were not at their best in the first half but competed well throughout, keeping the scoreline close via the boot of the talismanic and underrated Steenson.
England hopefuls Ewers and Slade were once again magnificent with the latter often being the focal point for building momentum. Moray Low provided a stable presence in the scrum and a special mention must go to prop Ben Moon for delivering two perfect lineout throws in tough conditions, whilst Taione was in the sin bin.
Yet again, Exeter reaffirmed their place amongst the Premiership’s elite and will be relishing the journey to the Ricoh Arena to face Wasps next weekend. The fixture list does not get any easier as Champions Cup action returns to Sandy Park in the form of the mighty Clermont Auvergne in two weeks’ time.