Exeter Chiefs inflict a psychological wound on Saracens with resounding Sandy Park triumph
The growing rivalry between Exeter Chiefs and Saracens at the pinnacle of the English club game ratcheted up a significant notch with Exeter's 31-13 win at Sandy Park that shattered Sarries' eight-month unbeaten run on Saturday.
“Uncharateristically, Saracens cracked a few times,” said Rob Baxter, the Exeter director of rugby, who had drummed into his men the need for a positive performance in the strong likelihood these teams will meet again with the Premiership title at stake later this season. “We lost a bit of energy, as a team, and that's not like us,” said Mark McCall, Baxter's Saracens counterpart. “How we coped emotionally with how the game went is something we are going to have to talk about on Monday.”
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In the run-up to this meeting of the Premiership's top two clubs it had appeared Exeter might be on the slide, albeit at a shallow angle, mainly due to two dodgy European Cup home matches – a draw with Munster and a loss at home to Gloucester. Such are the relentless standards the Chiefs are being judged by, eight years since their elevation to the Premiership.
Instead, the Chiefs used this emphatic triumph, which levered them above Saracens by three points at the top of the Premiership table, with the other 10 clubs a distance further back, to rediscover the best of themselves; it was nothing less than a restoration of faith.
Baxter said afterwards: “We didn’t talk about the importance of the result much, but we did talk about being able to walk away from this game, knowing we’d caused Saracens some problems and hurt them in certain ways, to give us confidence for the next time we played them. We went to the corner almost all the time, as we would against most teams, whereas we normally kick our points against Saracens because they are defensively very strong. That desire to score tries gave us an energy and a vibrancy that made us comfortable with how we're playing. It kept the pressure on Saracens and uncharacteristically they cracked a few times.”
It also stopped Saracens' unbeaten sequence in all competitions at 22, since they were last beaten away to Leinster in a European Cup quarter-final in early April – a setback that fired the London club, they readily admit, for the Premiership run-in that culminated in a complete domination of Exeter in May's Twickenham final. It also left Sarries one short of equalling Leicester's record of 17 straight wins in the Premiership (in 1999-2000), and this was their first league reverse since their most recent visit to Exeter in March.
Exeter's driving maul was integral to the result; a big factor in three of their tries. But there were other important elements which must qualify any rampant writing-off of Saracens based on one poor afternoon.
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The visitors' uber-obdurate captain Brad Barritt was forced from the field in the 20th minute with a blood-soaked head and concussion, after Exeter's No.8 Matt Kvesic drove into him at a ruck. Saracens were 6-0 up at the time, and fulfilling their game plan of keeping Exeter out of the visitors' 22, but that was as good as it got and they were 10-6 down by half-time. At which point there was a little bit of Strictly Come Dancing in the changing room from Baxter as he demonstrated the footwork he wanted from his pack.
Saracens struggle as the game closes out
But a good measure of Baxter's job had been done by the presumably accidental collision between Kvesic and Barritt. With the latter's departure went a big dollop of composure in the Saracens midfield. Owen Farrell lost his rag with referee Tom Foley over a contentious tackle in the 66th minute, to concede a crucial penalty (a wider worry for England supporters, as Farrell is their national team's captain).
A sound effect to match the link between Farrell and his centres Alex Lozowski and Nick Tompkins would have been the ugly crunching of clunky gear changes, without the engine oil provided by Barritt. Every threequarter handling move was nervy and jerky. The flanker Mike Rhodes also went off with an A/C shoulder injury, and the already injured Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola had not started. Those four are kingpins, in anyone's book.
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The final quarter was all Exeter as their black machine launched an irresistible maul to gain a penalty try. You wonder if this might give them the impetus to mount a late charge to qualify for the European quarter-finals. It might have resonance elsewhere, too – both Leinster and Racing 92 in Europe possess similar weapons to Exeter, and will surely pore over this encounter with relish. Sarries will, however, take heart from the way they bounced back from apparently seminal losses to Clermont Auvergne and Leinster last season. The balance of power may have tipped a little towards Devon, for now, but the scales can easily move again.
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