Exeter Chiefs had lost their last two home games and in total, the last four Premiership matches, so the trip to Allianz Park was destined to be utilised as a platform of redemption. Â
It looked set to be a triumphant afternoon for the Chiefs at half time but it was definitely a game of two very different halves as the Saracens fought back to win very convincingly, 23-10.
Early on there was a sense of bravery within the Chiefs camp, rather than kicking the points after being awarded a penalty, Steenson kicked for touch. He portrayed confidence in his teamâ€™s ability to beat the Saracens defence from the outset, and they meant business.
The strength of the Exeter forwards pack showed real tenacity and their physicality in defence was brutal, which caught the Saracens off-guard several times. The London side found themselves in a dangerous situation and attacking in their own 22 on numerous occasions.
This gave way to what was a beautiful try for Exeter; set up after countless phases of play and domination in the first 10 minutes. Exeter’s ability to attack was consistent. The back line strength was shown to its full glory as Ian Whitten crossed the line with ease.
Saracens looked lethargic, weak in defence, somewhat disjointed and the ability to counter ruck was proving a problem. Were they comfortable on home turf? I wasn’t so sure!
The Exeter attacking force weren’t tiring, especially when fantastic footwork from Fetu’u Vainikolo – described as a ‘one man battering ramâ€™ – provided a break through the Sarries defence again, beating a handful of defenders and a decent hand-off saw him make significant ground.
The sound of the tomahawk chop resounded around Allianz Park and at one point I was tempted to join in! This side had come out to win and were proving their passion and worth to wound the Saracens.
For a moment, I thought the Sarries had found their feet, when an outstanding overlap and a beautifully timed run by Joel Tomkins enabled him to angle his attacking line to threaten the Exeter defence. However, the Chiefs remained resilient and even though Chris Wyles made a break, he was subsequently chased down. Clinical aspects of the Sarries performance saw them flounder as they failed to put any points on the board.
The basics weren’t executed well enough in my opinion with poor handling errors to blame.
One couldn’t fault the work rate of both sides however – it was immense – but there were not enough points to show for either teamâ€™s efforts. Continuous line outs and scrums saw little passages of play, most of which were in the middle of the pitch.
Several kicks to touch from Charlie Hodgson showed the Saracens attempting to take control of the game but it seemed somewhat pointless when there was no sense of urgency to compete in the line outs!
Having said that, their dominance in the scrum was proving advantageous. Just shy of half time the Saracens forwards pack showed stability and Exeter were penalised. The confidence of Mouritz Botha and James Johnston to work together as a pod to bash the Exeter defence paid off, as Johnston crossed the line seconds later.
A great effort from the forwards and a deserved try, but I commend the Exeter defence for keeping their composure. A brutal and physical end to the first half and Exeter had remained focused. It was a skill in itself not to have conceded a try for a full 34 minutes, leaving the half time score at 7-7.
Exeter’s attacking line looked fierce first half and this West-Country side looked real contenders for the win as they went into the second half.
Saracens had been lax in their performance so far but a â€˜Eureka!â€™ moment occurred as they returned to the field. An absolutely fantastic rolling maul saw a 10-man surge head over the try line with Schalk Brits at the bottom of the pile. A well deserved try.
It made me question why on earth they hadn’t utilised this in the first half, especially as their ability to maul was a real strength? It was proving effective, especially when a penalty was awarded, enabling Hodgson to extend their lead further.
There was no real air of excitement in the second half but more a concern when a fatal high ball saw a collision resulting in Mouritz Botha being stretchered off. To the crowdâ€™s relief, an announcement confirmed he was conscious and smiling. Phew!
The ‘Wayne Barnes Effect,’ however, did humour the crowd for a minute or two when Schalk Brits collided with the referee and bounced off him. The comical moment passed and then a sense of frustration ensued as Exeter’s attack plateaued.
They were a side that had gone from showing dogged determination to completely lacking spontaneity and spark. This proved critical, especially as they had shown the potential to be lethal. But Saracens then regained control of the game.
Even with Jacques Burger being sin-binned for a high tackle on Phil Dollman, with 9 minutes left to play, Exeter still couldn’t break the Saracensâ€™ barrier.
Exeter conceded too many penalties in the second half, their game management was somewhat poor and Saracens stepped it up a gear when it was needed. Their ability to switch phases of play from the forwards to the backs was clinical and perfected. When it came down to it, this is what enabled them to win on home â€˜turf.â€™
It was very much a forwards game as it was the backs match. Both sides showed flair and running rugby in what were decent conditions even if there was a little wind: But it was frustrating to see the Chiefs become complacent in their capabilities and losing momentum.
There was a real sense of frustration from Exeterâ€™s Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, as he told me it was the, ‘story of their season’. Exeter are a competitive side but they’re struggling under pressure and they need to understand how to respond to that and maintain their ability to stay on the front foot. He went on to say,
‘Great credit to Saracens, I thought they played the elements the second half fantastically well but we certainly helped them.’
When the Saracens did finally get going, their drills were immaculate.
Saracens surged forward in the second half to cement their position in second place in the Premiership, but the result must leave Exeter wondering, where they will end up in their Premiership journey?
Full Time: Saracens 23-10 Exeter Chiefs
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day
To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her blog at: http://rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.ukÂ – You can also see her roundup of the weekend’s Premeirship action here – Aviva Premiership Round Up.