Exeter edge feisty Saracens
PREMIERSHIP REPORT: Exeter Chiefs took revenge on arch-rivals Saracens in their first meeting since the salary-cap scandal broke.
The Chiefs recorded a 14-7 victory to move top of the Premiership, despite a late red card for Harry Williams – as tempers flared at Sandy Park.
Converted tries by Nic White and Jacques Vermeulen – scored in each half – swept the Chiefs to a victory against opponents who have been docked 35 points and fined £5.4-million (US$7-million) for exceeding the league’s £7-million ceiling for wages.
Exeter had more reason than any other Premiership club to feel aggrieved after losing the two most recent Premiership finals to Mark McCall’s men, prompting their owner Tony Rowe to call for them to be stripped of their titles and threaten legal action.
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For all the Chiefs’ anger, an ugly match failed to ignite until the 77th minute when a ferocious brawl broke out on the sideline.
It was sparked by White sitting on Duncan Taylor and, in a flash, large numbers of players locked horns, including the substituted Williams – who joined in from the Exeter dugout.
Once peace had been restored, referee Wayne Barnes declared the tighthead prop’s behaviour “not acceptable” and showed him a straight red card.
Williams even invited England teammate Mako Vunipola to continue the fight in front of a record Sandy Park crowd of 13,593, before Barnes intervened to issue marching orders to a player who was also sin-binned earlier in the game.
Up until that point, the grudge match had lacked fireworks, the closet to a flashpoint being a simultaneous dressing down delivered by Barnes to both captains for protesting against decisions he had made.
White went over after just five minutes to hand Exeter the perfect start and Joe Simmonds added the extras.
The hosts second try was not pretty but the swarm of forwards that battered away from close range eventually made their mark as Vermeulen forced his way over.
A dramatic final 10 minutes set pulses racing as the rivals came to blows, but Saracens did not get on the board until a last-gasp penalty try at least salvaged a losing bonus point.
However, the English and European champions remain rooted to the foot of the table and left with a fight just to guarantee survival.
At the other end of the table, Exeter edged ahead of Northampton by a point at the top of the standings.
Exeter Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter: “We did a lot right, we rode a little bit of luck at times by staying in there and fighting for the last centimetre on the field and I’m still not quite how we held up the ball but we managed to just before half-time.
“Those moments just multiply when you play Saracens, every bit of momentum you can steal, you can fight for, you stop them getting two or three in a row and it makes all the difference.
“I thought we did that really well today to hold them at arm’s length.
“We had a lot of things that held together that performance that allowed us to capitalise in the first try, which was a bit of an opportunist try, and the second which we built extremely well.”
Saracens Director of Rugby Mark McCall: “I thought Exeter were superb defensively and it felt a really tale of both 22s really. They weren’t in our 22 too often, but when they were, they came away with some points. The first try we gifted them.
“We were down five metres from their line four or five times in the first half, probably the same in the second half. While there are other parts of our game that we need to improve, that is definitely the area that got us.
“Exeter defended magnificently of course, but we need to be better than that.
“It felt in the first half that into a bit of a breeze that we had the better of field position and possession but weren’t able to score. Fair play to them for that.
“In the second half we didn’t play as well I didn’t think. It is what it is, I’m glad we got a point at the end and it’s a good lesson for us that we need to be better.”
For Exeter Chiefs:
Tries: White, Vermeulen
Cons: Simmonds 2
Try: Penalty try
Con: Penalty try does not require a conversion
Yellow cards: Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs, 24), Dave Ewers (Exeter Chiefs, 78)
Red card: Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs, 76)
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Nic White, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Dave Dennis (captain), 3 Harry Williams, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Alec Hepburn.
Replacements: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Jannes Kirsten, 20 Don Armand, 21 Jack Maunder, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Sam Hill.
Saracens: 15 Max Malins, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Nick Isiekwe, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jack Singleton, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Titi Lamositele, 19 George Kruis, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Alex Lozowski, 23 Nick Tompkins.
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant referees: Christophe Ridley & Paul Dix.
TMO: Geoff Warren.
Additional reporting by @premrugby ter