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Saracens pay the price for ill-discipline as Exeter edge tense contest against rivals

·5-min read
Saracens pay the price for ill discipline as Exeter edge tense contest against rivals - GETTY IMAGES
Saracens pay the price for ill discipline as Exeter edge tense contest against rivals - GETTY IMAGES

The rivalry shared by Exeter Chiefs and Saracens is the tetchiest in the Premiership and has yielded some fine contests over recent years. This edition was far more petulant than polished, yet Rob Baxter’s charges will not mind at all as they rose to fourth.

Ultimately, tries from Tom O’Flaherty and Luke Cowan-Dickie, two stand-out performers, staved off Saracens. Mean scrummaging, Maro Itoje’s energy and the boot of Alex Lozowki kept the visitors close, but they fell to a second
loss of the league season.

Remarkably, Saracens were penalised for dissent on four separate occasions by referee Luke Pearce. Billy and Mako Vunipola were among those to lose their cool, with Mark McCall at a loss to explain the ill-discipline.

“It's not just frustrating, it's highly costly,” he said. “It cost us points and it cost us decisions later because you're on the wrong side of the referee and things you deserve you don't get.

“I can't [put my finger on it],” McCall added. “One or two of the players, which I won't name, have already apologised to their team-mates because they recognise that it’s not what we need.”

The respective returns from injury of Cowan-Dickie and Elliot Daly made it eight British and Irish Lions tourists on show between the sides, seven of them involved in this year’s trip to South Africa.

It was a first appearance of the season for Daly, who had recovered from surgery on a stress fracture to take a place on Saracens’ left wing. Meanwhile, locks Jonny Hill and Jonny Gray reunited for Exeter. The teams were loaded with quality and, despite difficult conditions, a compelling encounter seemed to be in the offing.

Instead, mistakes littered the opening minutes and Lozowski split the posts from just over 40 metres after Joe Simmonds had been collared for obstruction.

Exeter’s start had been fairly subdued until a back-field mix-up between Max Malins and Alex Goode. That surrendered possession to Exeter and Sam Simmonds surged over from close range.

However, play was called back because Henry Slade had played the ball from an offside position. Saracens escaped with another scrum penalty. On a slippery surface with rain teeming down, fumbles and infringements resumed. Pearce was in a particular mood and whistled Itoje for an overzealous attempt to steal at the breakdown. To complete a forgettable first quarter, Joe Simmonds missed from the tee.

Saracens’ most fluent period of attack was halted by some fierce counter-rucking from Exeter and Billy Vunipola conceded 20 metres by delivering two separate, and unwelcome, soundbites to the referee. Pearce warned Goode, the visiting co-captain, that no more disquiet would be tolerated.

The perpetrator was clearly incensed. As Joe Simmonds lined up a kick, levelling the scores, Jackson Wray and Itoje needed to calm down Billy Vunipola. To his credit, he did channel that anger constructively. Two rumbles earned penalties Lozowski restored Saracens’ lead.

Pearce, quickly losing patience, awarded a third penalty to Exeter for dissent on the half-hour mark. The hosts kicked to the corner and mounted a clever shift-drive, only for Koch to thwart them. Again, the Saracens scrum relieved pressure.

Finally, a minute before half-time, Exeter combined cohesion and skill. Stuart Hogg sashayed across the pitch and Cowan-Dickie sliced the Saracens line after taking a pass from Jack Nowell. Joe Simmonds dropped back and speared a kick-pass towards O’Flaherty, who climbed above Aled Davies to score.

Joe Simmonds kicked eight points for the hosts - GETTY IMAGES
Joe Simmonds kicked eight points for the hosts - GETTY IMAGES

The conversion faded wide, so Exeter turned around with a two-point advantage. Lozowski, in clinical form, cancelled that out early in the second period.

After yet more Saracens chat had incurred the wrath of Pearce, O’Flaherty sprinted after a clearance from Joe Simmonds and earned a breakdown penalty. Jannes Kirsten was introduced and Cowan-Dickie dotted down thanks to an irresistible maul.

A six-point lead, opened up by the conversion, looked decisive with the weather worsening and Joe Simmonds promptly extended it after Itoje had been penalised.

Lozowski kicked Mark McCall’s men into striking distance on the back of a strong scrum and then Hepburn flew in off his feet as Itoje loomed over a ruck. With 10 minutes remaining, Lozowski landed his fifth penalty to set up a dramatic finish.

Somehow Saracens resisted an onslaught of over 20 phases after Ivan van Zyl was charged-down with Hill was held up over the line. As Exeter had pounded at the whitewash, a streaker managed to scamper two full lengths of Sandy Park.

Their defensive stand earned Saracens one more chance and they spread the ball from flank to flank, but Kirsten burrowed in to nab possession and secure a mightily satisfying, if scruffy, triumph.

Baxter saluted a “proper game of Premiership rugby” in which both parties were “a little bit afraid to lose but desperate to win”. His summation of Saracens’ problems with Pearce hit home as well.

“Any opposition frustration normally comes from feeling under pressure,” Baxter said. “They don’t need to complain if things are going their way.

“That’s what you’ve got to do: create a pressure game of rugby. If you do, you give yourself a chance to come out on the right side of things.”

Match details

Scoring (Saracens first): 3-0 Lozowski penalty, 3-3 J Simmonds penalty, 6-3 Lozowski penalty, 6-8 O’Flaherty try, 9-8 Lozowski penalty, 9-13 Cowan-Dickie try, 9-15 J Simmonds conversion, 9-18 J Simmonds penalty, 12-18 Lozowski penalty, 15-18 Lozowski penalty

Exeter Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder; A Hepburn (J Kenny, 72), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle, 65), J Iosefa-Scott (S Nixon, 52), J Gray (R Capstick, 72), J Hill, D Ewers, D Armand (J Kirsten, 56), S Simmonds

Replacements: S Maunder, H Skinner, T Hendrickson

Saracens: M Malins; A Lewington, A Lozowski, N Tompkins, E Daly; A Goode, A Davies (I Van Zyl, 65); M Vunipola, E Lewis (K Pifeleti, 64), V Koch, M Itoje, N Isiekwe, J Wray, B Earl (T Swinson, 68), B Vunipola

Replacements not used: E Mawi, A Clarey, T McFarland, A Christie, D Morris

Referee: Mr L Pearce (RFU)

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