Saracens edge Exeter in epic Premiership Final
PREMIERSHIP REPORT: At the end of a classic season, Saracens produced a thrilling finale to beat Exeter Chiefs 37-34 and retain their Premiership title in an all-time Twickenham classic.
Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and Jamie George all crossed in the final 20 minutes to turn the final on its head after a rampant Exeter seemed set to lift their second title.
But instead, they suffered a second straight final defeat to Saracens and third overall as the Londoners completed a European and domestic double with the biggest ever comeback in a Premiership Rugby Final.
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Exeter crossed four times, through Nic White, Dave Ewers, Jonny Hill and Henry Slade, and at one point led by 11 points but Saracens rode out the storm and struck the decisive blow late on.
George and Ben Spencer had crossed for them in the first half but just as Exeter took control, they unleashed an unstoppable onslaught.
Williams and Maitland finished over flowing moves and George added another to secure a fifth title in nine years.
Seemingly set on a collision course since the season started nine months ago, the two sides ensured the wait was worth it thanks to a breathless first-half and drama-filled second.
The Twickenham showpiece can often start cagily, with both sides desperate to avoid an early mis-step. Not so here.
Exeter’s Joe Simmonds booted the ball high into the picture-blue sky from the kick-off, Saracens lock George Kruis mis-judged it and the ball landed in Exeter hands.
Unprepared, Saracens were forced back towards their own line, as they chaotically attempted to stop the early Exeter charge inside their own 22, and scrumhalf White burrowed over from just a metre out for the fastest ever Premiership Final try. One minute on the clock, one try on the scoreboard.
However, it takes more than that to scare Saracens and, true to form, they bounced straight back. The defending champions darted straight into Chiefs territory from the kick-off, gained an advantage and built an overlap to the left.
One more pass and they were in, but Slade deliberately knocked-on Alex Goode’s pass in his last-ditch attempt to save a Maitland try and was sent to the sin-bin.
Saracens made it count, kicking to the corner and rumbling over from the maul with hooker George taking the honour of touching down.
With 14 men, Exeter set out to contain Saracens but champions strike when the iron is hot. Farrell added a penalty before scrumhalf Spencer stepped inside an Exeter tackler from a metre out to dot down, following a powerful move that had Billy Vunipola at its heart.
Chiefs Director of Rugby Rob Baxter may well have looked on with concern at the way Saracens responded but with Farrell wayward off the tee – missing his first two conversions – the gap was only six points. And that was quickly obliterated.
Another kick-off was collected by the Chiefs and from there, they got their own back – pounding their way towards the Saracens line.
Maro Itoje, in his desperate attempt to stop Exeter’s progress, was penalised and sent to the sin-bin and Exeter made him pay as Ewers – celebrating his 100th Gallagher Premiership Rugby appearance – ground the ball after a series of pick-and-go’s.
The Exeter faithful – plentiful and loud – didn’t have long to wait for another score. Some intense running on clever lines from the likes of Jack Nowell and Simmonds punched holes in Saracens defence, softening them up for lock Jonny Hill to blast through and score.
Farrell and Simmonds exchanged penalties at the end of a breathless opening 40, with the Chiefs 22-16 up.
The drama continued into the second half, with Exeter almost extending their lead. Slade’s initial kick and chase was blocked by fullback Goode but the ball was booted back through for a chasing Cuthbert – only for Williams to get a vital touch behind the try line just in time.
However, that stay of execution did not last long. Sam Skinner, on for first-half try-scorer Hill just eight minutes before, found space down the right-hand side, breaking one limp tackle on his way to the line.
Saracens got men across to stop his rampaging run but a daring fling back inside found Slade, timing his run perfectly, and the England centre caught it and slammed it down for the score.
Simmonds missed the conversion but extended Exeter’s lead was extended to 11 points – if only for a matter of seconds.
Like they did in the first half, Saracens hit back in style. Maitland’s incisive run carried Saracens into Exeter territory and Farrell, quiet in attack for much of the first hour, fired a cross-kick to the right where Williams outjumped Simmonds to collect the ball and scamper over. Farrell, such an immense kicker under pressure, dissected the posts and the gap was down to four.
Saracens’ resilient reputation all of a sudden started to creep into the match and the momentum shifted their way. They were fast to tackles, refused to be pushed backwards and upped their tempo to an almost unstoppable pace.
Exeter held out as long as they could but they eventually cracked, with Richard Wigglesworth bursting forwards into space. He was taken down but the chaos he caused meant Exeter’s defence was out of shape and Farrell burst down the left and passed to Maitland – who stepped inside to score.
Farrell again nailed the conversion and the Londoners led by three. Exeter still had ten minutes to turn it around but Saracens had them in a vice-like grip, and George shrugged off two tackles to seal it two minutes from time.
Sam Hill crossed in the dying seconds to reduce the gap, but Saracens were soon celebrating another title.
For Exeter Chiefs:
Tries: White, Ewers, J Hill, Slade, S Hill
Cons: Simmonds 3
Tries: George 2, Spencer, Williams, Maitland
Cons: Farrell 3
Pens: Farrell 2
Yellow cards: Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs, 3); Maro Itoje (Saracens 18)
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Jack Nowell, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Nic White, 8 Matt Kvesic, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Jack Yeandle (captain), 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Jack Maunder, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Sam Hill
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Richard Barrington.
Replacements: 16 Tom Woolstencroft, 17 Ralph Adams-Hale, 18 Christian Judge, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Mike Rhodes, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Nick Tompkins, 23 David Strettle
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant Referees: Matthew Carley & Tom Foley.
TMO: Graham Hughes.