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Exeter Chiefs 13
Mark Stevens at Allianz Park
Two points gained or two points lost?
Exeter Chiefs extended their unbeaten run in the Aviva Premiership to six games after they shared the spoils with reigning champions Saracens at a packed out Allianz Park.
Rob Baxter’s side bossed the opening 40 minutes to lead 10-3 at the break thanks to a Gareth Steenson penalty and a converted try from Jack Nowell, but it was the Londoners – who lost prop Richard Barrington to a red card after 15 minutes – who proved the stronger in the second period.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Sarries dug deep into their reserves to haul in their Devon rivals, claiming an all-important converted try from prop Titi Lamositele with just five minutes remaining.
On other days this would have been a more than satisfactory outcome for the Chiefs, who had lost their last four meetings against Mark McCall’s men, including last season’s Premiership final.
Today, though, they had their chance to claim a vital victory and as they headed back down to the Westcountry late on Saturday night, the burning feeling will be lingering deep inside Exeter’s battered bodies
Buoyed by festive wins over Leicester Tigers and Bath, Baxter was hoping that winning sequence could extend into the first game of the New Year against the star-studded English and European champions.
Ahead of kick-off, the visitors made a number of changes in personnel to that which had claimed a first-ever league win at Bath. Up front, Carl Rimmer, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Greg Holmes, Ollie Atkins, Geoff Parling and Tom Johnson were all added to the starting XV.
Behind, Henry Slade was back from injury in the centre, while James Short – who had scored two late tries in the Roman City seven days earlier – was also rewarded by starting on the left wing.
Saracens, meanwhile, were again able to parade a wealth of proven, international talent within their ranks – even though England quartet Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, George Kruis and Owen Farrell were all missing.
Such is the talent pool in North London, the fact they had five full internationals on their bench underlined the options Mark McCall is able to call upon each week.
With a capacity crowd in place, it was ferocious opening to the contest from both sides as the battle to earn early territory resulted in some heavyweight collisions. However, a kicking error from Alex Goode allowed the Chiefs the first real attacking platform and it almost paid dividends.
Decent enough work off the resultant scrum saw the visitors plough forward with a succession of attacks, before Will Chudley spotted a gap down the blindside that he exposed with aplomb.
The scrum-half zig-zagged his way towards the line, only to be collared just short of the whitewash by some scramble defence from the hosts. Then, as his forwards piled in behind him they sensed the opportunity was there to strike an early blow. Sadly, though, a knock-on just inches out denied Baxter’s men and Sarries were able to clear the danger.
Minutes later and the Chiefs threatened again, this time winning a penalty from a scrum 10 metres inside the Sarries half. Up stepped Steenson immediately, but the normally deadly Irishman pulled his long-range effort just wide of the right post.
Steenson was afforded another shot just moments later, this time after England international Parling was crudely felled by the actions of home stars Brad Barritt and Richard Barrington.
Barritt’s swinging forearm to the throat of Parling was certainly ugly, but Barrington’s subsequent shoulder charge into the head of the British Lions star ultimately floored the Exeter man.
Immediately, referee Ian Tempest halted play, not only for Parling to receive attention, but to consult with TMO Sean Davey on the actions of the Barrington, who earlier in the day had led his side out on his 100th appearance for the Londoners.
Under the new World Rugby guidelines the officials had little option but to show the home forward a red card for his actions, while Barritt could consider himself very lucky to escape further punishment. Parling, on the other hand, departed the scene on a stretcher and his neck in a brace.
The loss of Parling did little to deter the visitors, who extended their lead on 15 minutes with a vintage piece of skill from Nowell. The England international was on hand to claim his first try of the season, plucking a Steenson chip over the top out of the air like a gazelle, and finishing in the corner in some style.
Steenson bagged the testing touchline conversion with a sublime kick, extending Exeter’s early lead to ten points.
Somewhat shell-shocked by Exeter’s early blast, Sarries looked to counter quickly. Lozowski saw a long-range drop-goal chance sail wide of the mark, before he finally got the home side up and running, landing a penalty on 24 minutes after a big shove from the Sarries pack at scrum time.
Although down a man, Sarries continued to press hard in attack, looking to using the imposing Maro Itoje, Jim Hamilton and Kelly Brown to try and punch holes into the Exeter defensive line. To a man, the Chiefs held firm, producing a stubborn rearguard action that won them not only possession, but also territory at a crucial stage of the contest.
Then, with a minute left of an incident-packed first 40 minutes, the Chiefs thought they had scored again when Don Armand cut a lovely line in midfield. He galloped clear of the cover and headed for the line, but just as he looked set to touchdown, he dropped the ball in contact, allowing Sarries a massive reprieve.
HALF TIME SARACENS 3 EXETER CHIEFS 10
With just a converted score separating the two sides on the resumption, it was the home side who started the second period on the front foot. Brown and Itoje both made earlier inroads, as did livewire hooker Schalk Brits, but again the Chiefs held firm under the pressure.
At the other end, the Chiefs threatened in attack themselves, but just as they looked poised to strike, they were pulled up for holding on in the tackle, allowing the champions to clear their lines.
As the minutes ticked by, so McCall turned to his bench in a bid to reduce the deficit. Internationals Jamie George and Will Skelton were added from the sidelines and both made an input immediately, helping to win a scrum penalty that Lozowski slotted to cut the Exeter lead to just four points.
Baxter also turned to his bench to freshen things up in this bruising encounter and they too made a difference, forcing a line-out penalty that allowed Steenson another shot at the target.
Again, the Irishman could not capitalise on Itoje’s indiscretion, pulling his kick wide of the mark.
With Steenson and the Chiefs left to rue another golden opportunity, so Saracens thrived on the fact they were still very much alive and kicking. They threw caution to the wind, producing a sea of ferocious attacking waves that had them camped deep inside the Exeter 22.
The ‘Men in White’ were rocking on the ropes, but crucially Sarries could not deliver the telling blow to floor their opponent.
Instead, they regathered themselves to produce a solid five-minute spell, packed full of industrious driving play from all and sundry. It was a clever tactic and in the end it paid off when the hosts were pinged for not releasing at the tackle. This time, Steenson made no mistake slotting a crucial penalty.
But no sooner had the Chiefs given themselves an element of breathing space, they gift wrapped their rivals an attacking platform when Johnson was adjudged to have not rolled away.
Sarries used the penalty to kick for the corner, before rumbling their way ever closer to the Exeter line. The first raid was thwarted illegally by the Chiefs, the second though proved more profitable as the home packed – aided by the odd back or two – came together to send Lamositele over for the try, which Lozowski duly converted.
Allianz Park duly erupted into a wall of noise, thus setting up a grandstand finale in the London night sky.
Reclaiming possession from kick-off, the Chiefs again worked their way through a string of phases to get themselves to within sight of the home line. Sarries, however, showed why they are Europe’s top team, tormenting their rivals at the congested breakdown and forcing Steenson to try – and fail – with a drop-goal chance two minutes from time.
In the end it wasn’t to be for Baxter’s side, who have emerged from this latest block of Premiership games with more to crow about then many of their counterparts. That said, the feeling inside the Chiefs camp is it could easily have been so much more had they triumphed here.
Saracens: A Goode; S Maitland (T Lamositele 14), M Bosch (N Tompkins 5, D Taylor 53, B Spencer 70), B Barritt (capt), C Wyles; A Lozowski, R Wigglesworth; R Barrington, S Brits (J George 51), J Figallo (V Koch 49); M Itoje, J Hamilton; M Rhodes (W Skelton 51), K Brown (S Burger 62), J Wray.
Try – Lamositele; Conversion – Lozowski; Penalties – Lozowski (2)
Red Card: Barrington
Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell, S Hill, H Slade (I Whitten 63), J Short; G Steenson (capt), W Chudley (J Maunder 66); C Rimmer (B Moon 49), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 53), G Holmes (H Williams 49); O Atkins (D Dennis 45), G Parling (M Lees 11); D Armand, T Johnson, T Waldrom. Replacement (not used): M Campagnaro
Try – Nowell; Conversion – Steenson; Penalties – Steenson (2)
Referee: I Tempest