It was a case of déjà vu all over again on Saturday 26 May as the Chiefs succumbed to a Premiership Final defeat to Saracens in a repeat of the 2016 fixture. Having put in a succession of masterful domestic displays this season, the Sandy Park outfit went into the game with a 10-game winning streak in all competitions – it proved inconsequential as the Chiefs were left devastated, with Saracens running out deserved winners on a warm and windy afternoon at Twickenham.
The Chiefs were left bitterly disappointed as a masterful forward effort by Saracens prevented Exeter from stamping their mark on the game, with Mark McCall’s men notching four tries to the Chiefs’ sole score. Two quickfire tries by Billy Vunipola and Chris Wyles in the first quarter set Saracens on their way, before Wyles’ second just after half-time all-but put the game to bed.
Gareth Steenson crossed the whitewash for the Chiefs as Rob Baxter’s men rallied in the final quarter, but it was Saracens who had the final word – Nathan Earle diving over in the corner with two minutes to play.
Defending champions Exeter had topped the Premiership table for much of the year and finished the domestic season eight points clear of second-placed Saracens. Both teams opted to select the same personnel from their semi-final successes – a 36-5 hammering of Newcastle for Exeter and a 57-33 thriller for Saracens against Wasps respectively.
this match was, irrefutably, the best two sides in England coming head-to-head when it really mattered
If those results weren’t enough proof, this match was, irrefutably, the best two sides in England coming head-to-head when it really mattered. Exeter began the game the better of the two teams and dominated the opening exchanges. Neat box-kicking by scrum-half Nic White forced Sean Maitland into a knock-on, and from the resulting scrum the Chiefs looked to put the ball through the hands early on. Excellent interplay by Alec Hepburn and Mitch Lees put Sam Hill half clear, and Saracens infringed on their 22m line – an early opportunity for Joe Simmonds to get points on the board.
He duly obliged, sending the penalty from bang in front straight through the middle of the posts – the Chiefs led 3-0 after five minutes. The next opportunity came from Sam Simmonds breaking downfield from the restart. The Chiefs’ recycling had Saracens on the back foot, forcing Vincent Koch to infringe on his 10m line – Simmonds-the-younger stepped up to add to his first effort, but his shot on the angle was scuffed wide and short of the posts.
Incredibly, the statistics showed the Chiefs had 99% of the possession after nine minutes – a clear mark of intent from Baxter’s side. With Saracens’ sheer bulk and ability to score with sucker-punch blows from anywhere on the pitch, Exeter knew any success would be reliant on their ability to string the phases together and keep their North London rivals’ aggressive defence on the back foot.
Exeter knew any success would be reliant on their ability to string the phases together
Despite an excellent opening, the Chiefs failed to maintain their dominance of the ball. After referee Wayne Barnes pinged Maro Itoje for playing the man in the air at a lineout on halfway, Henry Slade stepped up and followed Simmonds by skewing his kick to touch over the try-line, to the delight of the Saracens’ faithful.
It was a sure sign of big-match nerves from Slade. If familiarity breeds success, then Twickenham is something of a second home for Saracens. Not only have they staged home-games at HQ since 2004 in the London Double-Header, but six trips to the stadium for the Premiership final – resulting in three victories before this year – to go with their two European Champions Cup trophies hammered home precisely what stood in the way of the Chiefs and a successful title defence.
McCall alluded to his side’s pedigree in the week before the game – it had been “53 weeks since” Saracens had seen the trophy stolen away from them by a late Exeter try at the semi-final stage last season. That sense of determination was writ large across the team as, two minutes after Slade’s miskick, Billy Vunipola crossed the whitewash for the first time in the game.
It was a somewhat unfortunate break that had Saracens hammering on the Chiefs’ try-line. A neat chip by Owen Farrell in the midfield bounced kindly for Alex Goode, who hacked on into the Exeter 22. The full-back reclaimed his volley, and when his teammates came to his aid, Farrell was able to find Wyles on the left with a crossfield kick. The American winger fed Billy Vunipola, and although he was initially stopped, when the ball was recycled to the big number-eight, he crashed through Joe Simmonds’ attempted tackle to score at the base of the posts.
If Exeter fans were bemoaning their side’s poor fortune at the bounce of the ball, it didn’t take long for them to have something else to worry about.
Incredibly, Vunipola was only confirmed fit to play 20 minutes before kick-off. As McCall admitted after the game, the England star hadn’t trained all week due to concerns over a hamstring injury. Despite only lasting 59 minutes, Vunipola emphatically won the battle between the two England number eights, hammering into contact along with his brother, Mako. By contrast, Sam Simmonds and his sibling, Joe, had a torrid afternoon, unable to use their more subtle prowess in a game dictated by physicality.
If Exeter fans were bemoaning their side’s poor fortune at the bounce of the ball, it didn’t take long for them to have something else to worry about. After stringing their own possession together – and making more headway in the midfield than Exeter were able to – Saracens overloaded their left-hand side. Wyles was the grateful recipient of Maitland’s deft draw-and-pass following good interplay between Farrell and Goode once more, and the departing winger had a clear run-in from the 22 – the first quarter gone, and the Chiefs trailed 3-12.
Saracens were firmly in control. Every carry saw them get over the gainline. When captain Don Armand disappeared for a Head Injury Assessment, the Chiefs nearly saw the game slip away from them before half-time. Two charged-down kicks in a matter of seconds – by Farrell on Lachie Turner and Itoje on White – pinned Exeter on their own line. The lineout faltered, Farrell put boot to ball once more, and only a despairing dive by Jack Nowell prevented Wyles from claiming his second.
THE CHIEFS had to work hard to bring down Sarries’ heavy-hitters
The first-half ended with Armand’s return and Farrell pulling a penalty wide to the left – his third missed kick of the afternoon. The Chiefs had seen their possession reduced to 48% at the interval, and despite the relatively even statistics across the board, they failed to paint the whole picture. Saracens’ defensive discipline and power allowed them to refrain from overloading their defensive breakdowns; in contrast, Exeter had to work hard to bring down Sarries’ heavy-hitters, resulting in gaps around the fringes and out wide.
Exeter came out with high-hopes, but minutes in and Saracens had a third try. Saracens’ captain Brad Barritt got clear following a neat offload on the inside and the forwards ground their way to the line. The ball went wide – Lozowski found Goode, and once more the full-back sent Wyles clear for his second score. Farrell added the extras from out wide.
Baxter responded by emptying the bench, and veteran fly-half Gareth Steenson replaced the young apprentice Joe Simmonds, who had looked somewhat intimidated by the occasion. The Irishman’s experience was key in turning the tide, and he pulled the Chiefs back within nine-points of Saracens when he carried Ben Spencer over the line following a first-phase scrum play. Ultimately, it proved fruitless as the Chiefs were unable to mount the comeback their fans were crying out for.
Having been starved of the ball for so long, the match hinged on the Chiefs’ ability to go back to basics and score from their well-worn method of sticking the ball up the forwards’ jumpers and heaving towards the line.
Three such chances arrived. The first saw Steenson send a glorious penalty kick to Saracens’ 5m line, and the forwards duly obliged by rolling the resulting maul towards the line for what looked a certain try – until Schalk Brits hauled it down, spending ten minutes in the sin-bin for the pleasure. Steenson kicked to the corner again, and although he eventually scored several phases later, both the maul and the Chiefs’ pods of forwards were repelled by a disciplined defensive line. For this Exeter team, it has almost become a formality that they score from such positions – to fail at the hands of such a resolute defence that has kept you well away from their try-line all day must have been dispiriting.
processes that work seamlessly in the safe surroundings of Sandy Park went awry AT Twickenham
When the third opportunity arrived not long after Steenson crossed the whitewash, Slade failed to repeat the Irishman’s feat of putting the pack into the red zone. Slade sought to avoid his first-half error, and his penalty to touch from around halfway only made it to the 22 – a relative lightyear to traverse considering the fifteen obstacles stood between Exeter and the try-line. As it was, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill got their wires crossed and the chance went begging – processes that work seamlessly in the safe surroundings of Sandy Park suddenly went awry in the oppressive heat of Twickenham.
Farrell departed with cramp but Saracens’ territorial dominance continued with an excellent kicking game that kept Chiefs pegged in their own half. Spencer added another penalty to extend the margin to 12-points, before Earle capped a dominant victory for Saracens with time running out and the Chiefs switching off on the blindside after defending a series of forward drives on their own line.
“Finals are about the winners” – ROB BAXTER
After the game, Baxter was understandably devastated: “The changing room feels a lot different from two years ago. It didn’t feel a nice place just now – and that’s not because the players are unaware that they’ve had a good season. They know they’ve had a good season and we’ve achieved things we’ve never done before as a side – but it didn’t feel like a changing room that was happy, or pleased, or at the end of a journey.
“Finals are about the winners. I thought Saracens were very good […] their management of the game […] and how they worked to exploit [that] into pressure and points was very good and we didn’t handle that well enough on the day.”
Addressing the suggestion that the Chiefs may have fared better had they opted for experience over youth, Baxter was adamant. “My job isn’t [just about] today. Sam Simmonds has played international rugby. What am I going to do – not pick him because Tom Waldrom’s around? It doesn’t work like that.”
It was a disappointing end to the Chiefs’ season. Having performed admirably, if unsuccessfully, in Europe this year, their domestic form has been imperious – spurred on by the determination to retain a title that surely seemed improbable eight years ago when they won promotion to the Premiership for the first time. But for a resolute Sarries outfit that suffocated the life out of the contest through their discipline and power, Exeter looked likely to do just that having brushed aside all-comers at Sandy Park this term.
“Some of the things we got wrong you can put down to pressure from the scoreboard, or from the things Saracens were doing,” continued Baxter. “That’s what we’ve got to learn from”.
Exeter Chiefs: (3) 10
Try: Steenson Pen: J Simmonds Con: Steenson
Saracens (12) 27
Tries: B Vunipola, Wyles 2, Earle Pen: Spencer Cons: Farrell 2
Sin Bin: Brits
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Exeter: Lachie Turner; Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Sam Hill (Whitten 48), Olly Woodburn; Joe Simmonds (Steenson 48), Nic White (Townsend 58); Alec Hepburn (Moon 48), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Yeandle 48), Tomas Francis (Holmes 48), Mitch Lees (Skinner 50), Jonny Hill, Dave Ewers, Don Armand (c) (Waldrom HIA 30; returned 39), Sam Simmonds (Waldrom 65).
Replacements: Jack Yeandle, Ben Moon, Greg Holmes, Sam Skinner, Thomas Waldrom, Stuart Townsend, Gareth Steenson, Olly Whitten.
Saracens: Alex Goode; Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt (c) (Bosch HIA 50; returned 58), Chris Wyles (George 61; returned 70; Earle 74); Owen Farrell (Bosch 66), Richard Wigglesworth (Spencer 58); Mako Vunipola (Barrington 74), Jamie George (Brits 52; returned 61; Wyles 70), Vincent Koch (Figallo 52), Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Nick Isiekwe (Skelton 66), Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola (Rhodes 58).
Replacements: Schalk Brits, Richard Barrington, Juan Figallo, Will Skelton, Michael Rhodes, Ben Spencer, Marcelo Bosch, Nathan Earle.
Sin Bin: Brits 59