Absorbing top-of-the-table clash ends in victory for Exeter Chiefs...

Exeter Chiefs 24 Saracens 12

EXETER Chiefs took a massive step towards securing a home Premiership semi-final with a hard-fought victory over Saracens in an absorbing top-of-the-table clash.

The Premiership champions went into their game against the European champions, in a match delayed 24 hours by snow, with a four-point lead in the table over the Londoners.

By the end of the contest, they had doubled that advantage, denying their visitors even a losing bonus point.

Wasps’ home victory over bottom side London Irish saw them move above Sarries into second place, but Exeter hold a seven-point lead over them with only five matches of the regular season remaining.

Exeter welcomed back England duo Henry Slade and Sam Simmonds from injury, with the latter on the bench, but it was Sam’s younger brother Joe who captured the limelight.

The 21-year-old fly-half was selected ahead of club legend Gareth Steenson by director of rugby Rob Baxter – a big call in such a big game – but it showed how much faith he has in the young man, and he did not let anyone down, producing a man-of-the-match performance.

Saracens won the toss and opted to play into the wind in the first half, but they trailed 9-0 after 27 minutes through three Simmonds penalties.

The visitors came very close to scoring just before Simmonds’ third successful strike, but American international winger Chris Wyles just put a foot in touch as he got on the end of Alex Goode’s clever grubber kick through and the try was ruled out.

However, they did cross the whitewash in the 33rd minute when Marcelo Bosch’s excellent offload sent impressive young flanker Ben Earl – making his first Premiership start – racing away to score under the posts, with former Ivybridge Community College student Ben Spencer adding the simplest of conversions.

Exeter delivered an instant riposte, with Slade and Simmonds both having a hand in a try in the corner by full-back Phil Dollman – his first since scoring in the Premiership final at Twickenham last May.

Saracens had the final say of the half though, with South African hooker Schalk Brits finishing off a catch-and-drive, and even though Spencer missed the conversion into the wind, they only trailed 14-12 at the break, with the elements in their favour still to come.

They suffered a double blow at the start of the second half, losing experienced three-quarter duo Brad Barritt (bang to the neck) and Wyles (rolled ankle) to injuries, but incredibly they failed to score a point in the second period, such was Exeter’s ability to deny them possession and territory.

Simmonds’ fourth penalty of the game, from a scrum, extended the Chiefs’ lead to 17-12, and eight minutes later, it was that impressive set piece that wrapped the game up for the hosts, with referee Matt Carley marching under the posts to award a penalty try after three successive infringements by Sarries at five-metre scrums.

Saracens went hunting for a touchdown to rescue a bonus point from defeat, but it was that man Joe Simmonds who put in a try-saving tackle on Tom Whiteley, and suffered a blow to the head for his troubles.

Baxter commented: “It was hugely satisfying from us and I have got to give great credit to the players.

“We asked them to go out there and just be themselves, and sometimes under pressure that can be the hardest thing to do.

“But I thought we put in a really honest, hard-working and emotional performance, and everything about that game is going to say ‘well done to the Exeter Chiefs players’, right from the guys who have seen it and done it all before, down to Joe Simmonds, making a start and playing as well as he did.

“I have got to give credit to the 22 players other than Joe who created a platform for him to play as well as he did.”

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said: “We put in a lot of effort and I am much more pleased with the performance we put in this week than the one we did against Leicester last weekend.

“We had a great chance in the second half, only trailing by two points at the break having played into the wind, but we lacked composure at crucial times, but that is what you get with some of the inexperience we had on the field.

“Exeter were more or less at full strength today and clearly we weren’t.

“We expected our international players not to be here at this time in the calendar, but also having six really good forwards out through injury is a lot to contend with, and Exeter had a super bench to bring on.”

Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman, L Turner, H Slade, S Hill (I Whitten 56), O Woodburn, J Simmonds (G Steenson 75), N White, B Moon (A Hepburn 30), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 61), T Francis (G Holmes 61), S Skinner, J Hill, D Ewers (M lees 56), D Armand (capt), T Waldrom (S Simmonds 49). Replacement not used: S Townsend.

Saracens: A Goode, N Earle, M Bosch, B Barritt (capt) (M Malins 42), C Wyles (R Segun 42), A Lozowski, B Spencer (T Whiteley 72), R Barrington (H Thompson-Stringer 61), S Brits (S Spurling 72), J Figallo (T Lamositele 51), D Day (B Cowan 53), G Kruis, N Isiekwe, B Earl (M Flanagan 78), J Wray.

Referee: Matt Carley (RFU).

Attendance: 12,727.

Exeter: tries: Dollman, penalty try; Pens: Simmonds (4).

Saracens: Tries: Earl, Brits; Con: Spencer.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.