Exeter Chiefs claimed their fourth consecutive Aviva Premiership Rugby triumph as fly-half Gareth Steenson booted all the points to lead his side to an impressive victory over Saracens at Sandy Park.
An intriguing contest quickly became a kicking duel between this season’s leading points scorer Steenson and the league’s all-time record scorer Charlie Hodgson yet the Chiefs’ superior tactical nous ultimately proved vital.
Rob Baxter brought in Ben Moon and Moray Low after their scrum prowess made the difference in last weekend’s win against Wasps and they again exerted their dominance with Sarries routinely penalised at the set piece.
Steenson was flawless from the tee, kicking nine penalties as visiting prop James Johnston was sent to the bin with the Chiefs pack putting in a consummate performance to move their side up to second in the table.
The hosts led 18-6 at the break before Mark McCall introduced England prop Mako Vunipola on his return from a long-standing injury but he could not prevent Saracens from falling to back-to-back defeats, despite substitute Maro Itoje’s late consolation try.
An early knock-on from Chris Ashton gave the Chiefs good field position that they exploited through a series of surges in midfield, resulting in Saracens being penalised and Steenson landing his attempt at goal.
A diagonal kick from Hodgson found Exeter centre Henry Slade but excellent work at the breakdown by Will Fraser saw the Chiefs penalised, allowing veteran fly-half Hodgson to level just inside 15 minutes.
Yet Steenson restored his side’s lead moments later as Alistair Hargreaves was judged offside as he picked up Alex Goode’s fumble in front of the full-back.
Both sides were guilty of ill-discipline early on as Dave Ewers strayed offside to hand Hodgson his second penalty chance, with the fly-half duly obliging from the tee to make it 6-6.
The Chiefs immediately had a chance to strike back as Sarries centre Duncan Taylor conceded a penalty with a repeat of Hargreaves’ error and Steenson made it three from three.
Low and Moon started to demonstrate the ability in the scrum they showed against Wasps, winning a penalty inside the Sarries half as Steenson extended Exeter’s lead to 12-6.
The visitors’ front row continued to struggle as they infringed once more at the scrum, with Steenson at his metronomic best to make it five straight successes from the tee.
Another scrum penalty allowed Steenson to find touch deep in the Saracens 22, with Chiefs setting up the driving maul to barrel over only for the TMO to rule the ball was held up and awarding a scrum five.
Repeated infringements by the Saracens pack at the resulting set pieces saw referee Greg Garner lose his patience and send Johnston to the bin before Steenson score his sixth penalty to make it 18-6 at the interval.
The visitors responded well from the restart and Hodgson cut the deficit two minutes into the second period when Exeter were whistled at the breakdown only for Steenson to bisect the posts with his seventh penalty moments later.
Vunipola came on to bolster the Saracens’ battered front row and Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie then failed to roll away to allow Hodgson to land his fourth penalty, with the score 21-12 on 50 minutes.
Hodgson was the first kicker to falter as he saw his penalty glance off the posts, with Steenson duly punishing the miss on 65 minutes by landing his eighth of the encounter.
Slade then made a neat break before confusion as to whether Jack Nowell or Ashton had knocked on over the line saw Garner overrule the TMO to award Sarries the scrum.
Yet Chiefs soon regained possession and drove up towards the visitors’ line but Steenson eventually settled for the simplest of penalties to extend his side’s lead out to 27-12.
As the clock ticked into the red, Exeter’s desperation to end the game counted against them as Itoje picked up the loose ball following multiple fumbles to go under the posts, but Goode’s conversion was not enough to earn his side a losing bonus point.