A Matt Jess double helped Exeter Chiefs to an impressive seven-try victory over Sale Sharks but it was not enough to send Rob Baxter’s men into the Aviva Premiership Rugby top four.
Jess crossed twice in the second period as the Chiefs tried to rack up as many points as they could in pursuit of Saracens.
Tries for Jack Nowell, Ian Whitten, Henry Slade, Ben White and replacement Byron McGuigan as well as a late yellow for Mark Cueto and a red for Ross Harrison gave Chiefs a glimmer of hope.
But in the end it wasn’t enough and Exeter were left to settle for an admirable fifth-place finish.
The Chiefs got off to the perfect start and were three up inside two minutes as Gareth Steenson’s penalty got things going.
Exeter had come to play and showed they meant business in the ninth minute as they patiently waited to find Nowell who moved right and fed Whitten for the score in the corner – Steenson off target with the kick.
Sale were doing a good job of holding a determined Chiefs at bay and they got themselves on the board after 18 minutes as Danny Cipriani turned over a simple penalty.
The visitors were pushing hard for a try of their own but they couldn’t find a way over and settled for another Cipriani penalty to move them within two on 25 minutes.
With so much at stake the tension was clear to see in Exeter’s game as minor errors in possession were costing them the chance to move clear.
Sale however were starting to move the ball well and a nice swing from right to left had Exeter scrambling.
And they had their reward after they moved the ball central before switching back out to the left and Josh Beaumont showed tremendous pace to evade the attentions of Nowell and dot down.
Cipriani made no mistake with the kick but Exeter got themselves right back in the match as Nowell made amends for letting Beaumont slip through his grasp.
The England international found himself five yards out on the right touchline before cutting inside, running over and Steenson’s boot made it 15-11 at the break.
Exeter started where they left off in the second period and White was the hero after 44 minutes as he used his long reach to touchdown and Steenson’s kick put the play-offs within sight.
Steve Diamond’s men were down but still had plenty of fight left in the tank as Beaumont collected the ball wide left and showed pace and power to bag his second – Cipriani off target.
Despite the score Sale were up against it and it got worse after 53 minutes when Johnny Leota saw yellow for a late tackle.
But Steenson showed the nerves that were permeating the Chiefs side as he missed a simple kick penalty from in front of the posts.
Chiefs were pushing hard and Jess ran over after 57 minutes to move his side further ahead and had a second three minutes later – Steenson only managing to add one conversion.
Exeter were firmly in charge at Sandy Park and they emphasised their dominance when Slade crashed over after 64 minutes but, once again, Steenson was off target with the boot.
With ten minutes to go Sandy Park rose to its feet to applaud off Cueto who saw yellow and brought the curtain down on his stellar Aviva Premiership Rugby career.
With four left on the clock Alex Brown saw yellow for holding on but Harrison retaliated with punches and a red card put Sale down to 13.
The cards had hurt Sale and they were made to pay again as Chiefs ran over their seventh try as the ball was worked out to the right and McGuigan trotted across unopposed.
Steenson’s bad afternoon continued but it mattered little as the final whistle signalled the end of the Chiefs’ season.