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Exeter Chiefs 13
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
The only way is up for Exeter Chiefs after they slipped to a second successive Aviva Premiership defeat of the season.
After two rounds of league battle, Rob Baxter’s side are still searching for their first win of the season after reigning English and Europeans champions Saracens stormed to a five-try victory at Sandy Park.
In a dominant display from the Londoners, first half tries from Alex Lozowski and Sean Maitland set the tone, before Maitland struck for a second time, alongside further scores from Jackson Wray and Ben Spencer.
Full-back Alex Goode weighed in with a further nine points as Mark McCall’s side again underlined why they will be the team to beat this season.
In reply, Henry Slade kicked two first half penalties for the Devonians, while Luke Cowan-Dickie burrowed over for a converted second half try in front of watching England head coach Eddie Jones.
However, it was never enough as Saracens – the only team to win at Sandy Park in 20 months heading into this latest tussle – marched on at the top of the table.
Having kicked off the new campaign with a 25-20 loss at Wasps, Baxter was hoping a return to home comforts would allow his team to get their season up and running against last season’s stand-out team. Exeter’s leader made three changes to his starting XV, drafting in Greg Holmes and Geoff Parling up front, while behind Lachie Turner was handed his first start of the season with Olly Woodburn sidelined through injury.
Saracens, meanwhile, arrived in Devon initially unchanged from the side that defeated Worcester Warriors the week previous, but a back spasm to England lock George Kruis ahead of kick-off meant he missed out and Jim Hamilton was promoted from the bench with Kelly Brown drafted in to fill the void on the sidelines.
Although up against a strong wind in the opening half, it was the champions who were quickly on the front foot. Marcelo Bosch saw a second minute penalty sail wide of the left post, before the visitors struck with the opening try just three minutes later.
Fly-half Lozowski – a summer signing from Wasps – was the beneficiary as he latched onto a pass from Richard Wigglesworth before shaking off the attentions of Exeter centre Sam Hill to power over for the score, which was easily converted by Goode for a 7-0 lead.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs would have craved, but they had the chance just moments later to reduce the deficit when they were awarded a penalty after the visitors were pulled up for obstruction. Sadly, Slade could not capitalise on this occasion, drifting his long-range effort wide of the mark.
Saracens made the most of the let-off and in their next foray down field, used a penalty kicked to the left corner to create the opening for their second try of the afternoon. Initially the Chiefs did well to repel the line-out drive and Jamie George’s subsequent break-out, but when it was recycled on the blindside, there was Scottish international Maitland to dot down.
Up against it, Baxter’s men needed to find a way back into the contest. Slade cut the deficit with a penalty just before the half-hour mark and the England starlet repeated the feat just minutes later after sustained pressure deep inside the visiting 22 had milked another scoring opportunity.
Saracens were on the ropes and with Wigglesworth sitting in the cooler for 10 minutes following an ugly trip on Slade, the Chiefs looked to add to their points tally as half time approached. A series of attacking waves got them to within sight of the visiting line, but handling errors and some stout defence from the Londoners held the home side at bay.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 6 SARACENS 12
On the resumption, Sarries again set the early tone as some clever tactical kicking pinned the Chiefs deep inside their own half. Aussie winger Turner did well to cover a Barritt chip kick through intended for Chris Ashton, while a last-gasp tackle denied Mako Vunipola from adding a third Sarries try after the visitors had exposed an opening on the short side.
For all the territory and possession that Mark McCall’s side were having, crucially they were not extending their advantage in any way. The Chiefs – aided by some fresh muscle from the bench – were growing in confidence and again looked to lift the tempo as they had done so successfully during the latter stages of the first half.
However, a soft penalty – against Exeter replacement Harry Williams at scrum time – finally allowed Saracens to take advantage, Goode drilling over a penalty from nigh on halfway to put his side nine points clear.
Goode, last season’s Premiership Player of the Year, was then afforded another shot at goal just seconds later, this time after the Chiefs had failed to roll away at the tackle area, but this time the England star could not capitalise with a near identical kick to his previous effort.
With the buffer, though, Saracens did not have to work overtime in terms of attack. Time and time again they were happy to just poke the ball in behind, forcing the Chiefs to attack from their own line.
It was a tactic that was working a treat and just before the hour mark they claimed their third try, the visiting forwards punching the initial holes before the backs took over, creating an overlap for Maitland to dive over for his second of the afternoon. Goode duly dispatched the testing touchline conversion with aplomb to put them three scores clear entering into the final quarter.
Not content to finish there, Saracens – like champions tend to do – went for the Exeter jugular. More strong work up front, this time led by No.8 Billy Vunipola, saw him fend off a handful of Chiefs before he offered the offload to Wray, who was able to power over the whitewash with little resistance.
To their credit, the Chiefs refused to throw in the towel and in a rare foray downfield, they set up camp with a succession of penalties deep behind enemy lines. An initial line-out drive was thwarted, then a five-metre scrum was stopped by a string of illegal tactics from the visitors.
Undeterred, Exeter continued to plough forward, the forwards using a simple pick-and-go game which, in the end, resulted in a score for Cowan-Dickie, which Steenson was able to convert.
It lifted the sombre mood in the terraces, as did some ambitious attacking from deep in the dying embers, but it was sadly never enough against a streetwise Saracens outfit who put the shine on a polished performance when Spencer picked off a pass from Slade in added on time to add a fifth try, which Goode again converted.
The Chiefs now need to regroup quickly as Harlequins are next on the agenda, they visit Sandy Park next Saturday, where a positive result has now become somewhat of a priority for Baxter and his troops.
Chiefs: P Dollman (M Bodilly 15); L Turner, O Devoto, S Hill (G Steenson 61), I Whitten; H Slade, W Chudley (D Lewis 61); B Moon (A Hepburn 52), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 69), G Holmes (H Williams 50); G Parling (capt), D Welch (M Lees 23-29, 50); D Armand (D Dennis 4-12), J Salvi (D Dennis 66), T Waldrom.
Try – Cowan-Dickie; Conversion – Steenson; Penalties – Slade (2)
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch (N Tompkins 78), B Barritt (capt, N Tompkins 4-12), S Maitland; A Lozowski (M Ellery 67), R Wigglesworth (B Spencer 63); M Vunipola (R Barrington 67), J George (S Brits 51), P Du Plessis (J Figallo 67); M Itoje, J Hamilton (M Rhodes 54); J Wray, S Burger (K Brown 67), B Vunipola.
Tries – Lozowski, Maitland (2), Wray, Spencer; Conversions – Goode (3); Penalty – Goode
Yellow Card: Wigglesworth
Referee: JP Doyle