Saracens were once again crowned the best side in England as they overcame a resilient Exeter Chiefs performance to claim a 37-34 triumph at Twickenham on Saturday, reports Planet Rugby
It was an utterly compelling encounter. Brutal and skilful in equal measure, a scorching Twickenham allowed for a free-flowing affair and the sides did not disappoint.
The Chiefs edged the first half, going into the interval 22-16 ahead thanks to tries from Nic White, Dave Ewers and Jonny Hill. Jamie George and Ben Spencer responded for the Londoners, while Owen Farrell kicked two penalties, but they needed an improvement in the second period.
It initially failed to materialise and the Devonians increased their buffer through Henry Slade, but Sarries brilliantly hit back. They remained composed and touched down via Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and George to complete yet another stunning achievement.
Following four Premiership titles in five years, as well as three Champions Cups in that period, Sarries are this generation’s greatest side, but they were made to fight all the way by Exeter on Saturday.
These two were comfortably England’s best teams throughout the campaign and they showed why. The start set the tone as George Kruis failed to take the kick-off, allowing Alex Cuthbert to pick up and move to within inches of the line.
Exeter, who are arguably the best team in Europe five metres out, were in an ideal position and White duly sniped across the whitewash.
Saracens have reacted well to adversity over the past couple of years, however, and they immediately set about getting themselves on the scoreboard.
They won the restart and played some outstanding rugby through the heart of the opposition rearguard, which sent the Chiefs into reverse. The ball was then shifted wide and, under pressure, Slade deliberately knocked on, leading to a yellow card for the centre.
That indiscretion was to prove costly as the Londoners immediately scored via George, who touched down after a dominant maul, before Farrell’s penalty gave them the lead.
Mark McCall’s men were not done there, though, and with Slade still off the field further pressure resulted in Spencer touching down.
It could have been a devastating blow for the West Countrymen, but the 2017 domestic winners responded superbly. A brilliant break from Ollie Devoto, who fended off a strong hit by Maro Itoje, was the catalyst for a fine passage of play.
Similar to Exeter, Saracens infringed consistently under duress and Itoje, like he was in the Champions Cup final, was yellow carded after successive team penalties.
His absence yielded two further tries for Exeter when Ewers and Hill both crossed the whitewash from close range – Joe Simmonds converting one of them – for a six-point buffer.
That would remain at the interval as Farrell and Simmonds traded three-pointers, leaving Rob Baxter’s charges in control at 22-16 in front.
Unsurprisingly, with the conditions as they were, the second period was slower and more mistake-ridden, but the Chiefs raised it when they needed to.
The West Countrymen’s key players had all been superb, with Slade, Devoto, Jack Nowell and Dave Ewers standing out, but their replacements also made an impact.
Sam Skinner was one of those to start on the bench but, when he came on, the back five forward sprinted down the wing, fended off two would-be tacklers and brilliantly found his outside centre to score.
Exeter supporters were delirious but those celebrations were soon dampened when Sarries displayed their champion qualities to come back into the contest.
What a sensational counter-attacking try!
Wigglesworth breaks, superb support lines keep Exeter reeling, and Maitland crosses in the corner
Saracens rugby at it’s best!
Firstly, Williams superbly finished following Farrell’s accurate cross-field kick before Richard Wigglesworth’s break caused panic in the opposition defence. Baxter’s men failed to realign and simple hands on the left saw Maitland go over.
The Chiefs’ momentum had dissipated and Saracens were in command going into the final exchanges, and it resulted in George touching down.
That score ended the game as a contest as Sarries defended their title, but the Devonians did have the final word when Sam Hill powered across the line.
Tries: White, Ewers, J Hill, Slade, S Hill
Cons: J Simmonds 3
Pen: J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Slade
Tries: George 2, Spencer, Williams, Maitland
Cons: Farrell 3
Pens: Farrell 2
Yellow Card: Itoje