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Exeter Chiefs 39
Mark Stevens at the Twickenham Stoop
Good Friday turned out to be a ‘Great Friday’ as Exeter Chiefs maintained their top two status in the Aviva Premiership with victory over Harlequins.
Rob Baxter’s side produced one of their best displays of the season so far to record yet another maximum haul against the star-studded Londoners at the Twickenham Stoop.
Lachie Turner bagged two tries on his recall to the starting line-up, while Dave Ewers, Michele Campagnaro and Henry Slade also got in on the try-scoring act for the free-scoring Devonians.
Slade and replacement Gareth Steenson completed the job for the visitors who, with two games left in the scheduled season, remain on course for home advantage in the end of season play-offs.
The visitors, however, were made to fight for at least an hour by Harlequins, who countered with tries from Mat Luamanu, Tim Visser and Nick Evans, who also slotted three penalties, alongside a late conversion from Tim Swiel.
Having secured maximum reward from two tough home encounters against Sale Sharks and Bristol, the Chiefs arrived in the capital looking to preserve their impressive unbeaten run in the top flight, which stretched back to the end of October when Bath triumphed at Sandy Park.
The visiting line-up, however, was much changed from that which had faced Bristol just six days earlier. Injuries to Mitch Lees, Jonny Hill and Thomas Waldrom forced Baxter into bringing in Geoff Parling, Ewers and Kai Horstmann, whilst there were also starts for a new front-row of Carl Rimmer, Jack Yeandle and Greg Holmes.
Behind the pack, Italian international Campagnaro got the nod at centre, while leading try-scorer James Short was also back having sat out the last two matches.
Harlequins, meanwhile, were fully loaded as they looked to keep alive their top six hopes, fielding a star-studded line-up that included the likes of Messrs Marler, Horwill, Robshaw, Care, Roberts and Brown.
And it was England international Brown, who helped to give the Londoners a dream start, the full-back helping to create the space that sent No.8 Luamanu over in the left corner for the game’s opening try on three minutes.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs had envisaged, but having cut the deficit with a penalty from Slade five minutes later, they edged in front midway through the half with a touchdown from Ewers.
The back-row forward was able to bulldoze his way over the home line, finishing off great approach work from Slade and Turner, who was a late call-up to the starting XV after Phil Dollman was forced to pull out with a hamstring injury.
Parity, though, was soon restored as Evans, Quins’ leading points-scorer of all-time, bagged a successful penalty after Dave Dennis was caught offside in midfield as he looked to scramble round in defence.
It was pulsating stuff from both sides who, it seemed, were happy to go hammer and tongs at one another in the quest to gain any semblance of an upper hand.
As half-time approached, though, it was the visitors who regained the lead. A high hanging kick from Slade saw Short outdo Brown in the aerial battle, the winger latched onto the loose ball and when he spun it wide to Woodburn, it was the latter whose sublime back-of-the-hand pass released Campagnaro to glide his way over the line for the converted score.
It was no more than the Chiefs deserved for a fantastic first half showing but, with the clock in the red, they leaked another soft penalty that Evans dispatched with ease to leave just four points in it at the turn.
HALF TIME HARLEQUINS 11 EXETER CHIEFS 15
With little to choose between either side at the turn, it was Harlequins who were first to show on the resumption, making the most of a gift-wrapped try from the Chiefs to nose themselves back in front.
Looking to attack from just inside their own half, former All Black Evans could hardly believe his luck when he plucked out of the air Devoto’s intended pass to his right. It enabled him to gallop down the left flank and over for the score, which he was unable to convert.
Almost immediately the Chiefs had the chance to respond, winning a kickable penalty in front of the home posts after Kyle Sinckler had joined the maul illegally. The visitors opted not for the shot at goal, instead a kick to the corner and a greater reward.
Sadly, the tactic did not pay off as the line-out descended into a mess and Harlequins made the most of the let-off to mop up the danger and clear.
Offered a second chance, this time much further out, the visitors opted for the posts and Slade made no mistake, drilling a sublime kick between the posts to restore his side’s lead.
There was to be no let-up in the action, however, as a mistake by Care at the base of a ruck saw Campagnaro latch onto the ball. He picked up, tore down field at a rate of knots but, with Woodburn in close attendance, his team-mate over-ran him and left the centre with little option but to hold on.
It allowed Harlequins to regroup, win the penalty, before clearing down the park from which they were able to nose back in front, Evans slotting his latest penalty after two Chiefs were caught offside in midfield.
Both sides threw on fresh muscle from the bench in a bid to keep up the intensity, but it was one of the starters – in this case Turner – that provided the magic to restore Exeter’s advantage.
The Australian was released at pace by Short, he chipped over the top of Evans, and there was ever only going to be one winner in the race between the two Antipodeans.
Steenson slotted the extras to that score and Exeter’s bonus point effort, which arrived just two minutes later, Slade this time winning the sprint race to the line after he had chipped over the ever-tiring home defence.
The travelling Tribe, which had made the Bank Holiday trek to London in large numbers, jumped for joy in the stands, knowing the importance of the score, not just on the night, but also in the final shake-up with just two rounds remaining.
Exeter weren’t finished, however, and three minutes from time they put the icing on the cake when Turner claimed his second of the game – and his fifth in three appearances against Quins this season – when he again chipped over the vacant back field to collect and dot down once more.
Harlequins, to their credit, picked themselves up off the deck having been floored by the flurry of late Chiefs blows to claim a consolation score through Visser. It was, however, merely a late lift on a night when Baxter’s side showed their worth.
Whether they returned to HQ across the road next month remains to be seen, but on this showing you wouldn’t count against the Westcountrymen, who can now rest and recharge ahead of their clash with Northampton Saints on April 29 at Sandy Park.
Harlequins: M Brown; M Yarde, J Marchant (Alofa Alofa 66), J Roberts, T Visser; N Evans (T Swiel 70), D Care (capt); J Marler, R Buchanan (J Gray 3-13, 70), K Sinckler (W Collier 61); C Matthews (G Merrick 63), J Horwill; C Robshaw, L Wallace, M Luamanu. Replacements (not used): M Lambert, D Ward, C Mulchrone.
Tries – Luamanu, Evans, Visser; Conversion – Swiel; Penalties – Evans (3)
Chiefs: L Turner; O Woodburn, M Campagnaro (G Steenson 61), O Devoto (S Hill 58), J Short; H Slade, J Maunder (S Townsend 70); C Rimmer (B Moon 50), J Yeandle (capt, S Malton 66), G Holmes (T Francis 50); D Dennis, G Parling (O Atkins 78); D Ewers, D Armand, K Horstmann (J Salvi 58).
Tries – Ewers, Campagnaro, Turner (2), Slade; Conversions – Slade, Steenson (3); Penalties – Slade (2)
Referee: W Barnes