Adam Hughes admits the quality of Exeter Chiefs’ next flock of youngsters caught him by surprise as they battled back from behind to kick off the defence of their LV= Cup crown with a win against Gloucester Rugby.
The first half at Sandy Park was an even affair as Hughes’ brilliant intercept try pegged back Gareth Evans’ score for the Cherry & Whites, who dominated possession.
But tries from Bill Meakes and Yann Thomas, plus 12 points from fly-half Aled Thomas, seemed to suggest the reigning champions were heading for a downfall.
However a last-minute converted penalty try after Fetu’u Vainikolo’s effort pipped a 28-27 win, with kicker Ceri Sweeney’s 13 points also proving pivotal for the hosts at the end.
And it was the young guns among the replacements, such as Will Carrick-Smith and Tom Hendrickson, whose never-say-die spirit particularly caught Hughes’ eye.
“That shows the strength in depth in the squad,” said the centre, who signed from Bristol in the summer.
“What was really pleasing was the youngsters who came off the bench really made an impact and really helped
us get that result.
“They’re really good, I haven’t seen anything like it before.
“They’re really confident, they have got a lot of skill and they’re a quality bunch of youngsters.”
Elsewhere, Conor O’Shea believes Harlequins let Saracens run away with the game in the first half after their admirable fightback fell short at Allianz Park.
Duncan Taylor and Mike Ellery aimed a one-two punch with tries in the first half though Mark Lambert and Charlie Walker kept Sarries honest as the game approached the final 20 minutes.
However, a Jack Wilson score and the consistent kicking of Ben Spencer proved the difference for last year’s LV= Cup semi-finalists in a 25-20 win.
"We tend to give up very soft points when we play Saracens but there are a huge amount of positives to take from the game," O'Shea said.
"We could have nicked it at the end but every time we got ourselves back into the game they got a soft score.
"They have to learn from these games and we took the Saracens team-sheet, especially their pack as a massive challenge and tribute to those young fellas.
"The mental fortitude to turn around how we played at the breakdown in the second half was admirable.”
Northampton Saints made the first step to a possible LV= Cup final at Franklin’s Gardens after seeing off a dogged Newcastle Falcons 37-23.
Tom Catterick’s early try stunned Saints early on but they quickly found their groove as Teimana Harrison, Mike Haywood and a double from the impressive Tom Collins secured a bonus point.
Falcons fly-half Rory Clegg edged counterpart Will Hooley by 13 to 12 off the kicking tee while Juan Pablo Socino’s try threatened a comeback before the hosts sealed it through Howard Packman.
A revitalised Leicester Tigers hung on to record a smash-and-grab victory over London Irish as converted tries in either half by Miles Benjamin and Robert Barbieri sneaked a 17-16 victory.
The Exiles will feel aggrieved after pinning the Tigers back for much of the match, but could not turn possession
into points with just a Guy Armitage try and three Myles Dorrian penalties to show for it.
Tigers boss Richard Cockerill said: “There is a lot of competition for places and the four or five really young lads who were making their debuts did not look out of place in this company.
“Their young players who have never played at this level and to come in to this Leicester side and do themselves justice is credit to them all.
“It’s been a difficult week in some ways after the performance we put out last week, but the performance was good for everyone.”
Sale Sharks and Wasps were involved in another nip-and-tuck encounter with the former shading the win by 32-29 thanks to Nick MacLeod’s late penalty.
Sharks’ tries came through Alberto De Marchi, Josh Beaumont, Viliami Fihaki and Charlie Ingall, while Wasps also got the bonus point via Will Rowlands, Ed Jackson and the impressive Will Helu (2).
But Joe Ford and MacLeod’s combined off the tee to snare 12 points – outgunning Wasps fly-half Alex Lozowski by three.
At the Rec Max Northcote-Green was the pick of the bunch as the flanker’s try-double helped condemn London Welsh to a disappointing 47-7 loss.
Olly Woodburn, Matt Banahan, Richard Lane and Marcus Garratt were also among the scorers, with Nick Scott’s converted try the sole score for the Exiles.
Saracens 25 Harlequins 20
Tries: Taylor, Ellery, Wilson
Conversions: Spencer 2
Penalties: Spencer 2
Tries: Lambert, Walker
Conversions: Swiel 2
Penalties: Grimoldby, Swiel
Referee: Leighton Hodges
London Irish 16 Leicester Tigers 17
Penalties: Dorrian 3
Tries: Benjamin, Barbieri
Conversions: Bell 2
Referee: Steve Lee
Sale Sharks 32 Wasps 29
Tries: De Marchi, Beaumont, Fihaki, Ingall
Conversions: Ford 2, MacLeod
Penalties: Ford, MacLeod
Tries: Rowlands, Helu 2, Jackson
Conversations: Lozowski 3
Referee Greg Macdonald
Bath Rugby 47 London Welsh 7
Tries: Northcote-Green 2, Woodburn, penalty, Banahan, Lane, Garratt
Conversions: Henson 3
Penalties: Henson 2
Exeter Chiefs 28 Gloucester Rugby 27
Tries: Hughes, Vainikolo, Penalty
Conversions: Sweeney 2
Penalties: Sweeney 3
Tries: Evans, Meakes, Y Thomas
Conversions: A Thomas 3
Penalties: A Thomas 2
Referee: Simon Harding
Northampton Saints 37 Newcastle Falcons 23
Tries: Collins 2, Harrison, Haywood, Packman
Conversions: Hooley 3
Penalties: Hooley 2
Tries: Catterick, Socino
Conversions: Clegg 2
Penalties: Clegg 3
Referee: Andrew Jackson
For your definitive guide to the LV= Cup click here
Be part of the rugby family at the LV= Cup Final at Franklin's Gardens, Northampton on Sunday 22 March. Visit www.northamptonsaints.co.uk for tickets