Ben Ransom’s early try proved the difference as Saracens won 16-9 to maintain their impressive start to the Aviva Premiership – but they were forced to weather a strong late charge by Exeter Chiefs.
Ransom, on the pitch from the second minute after a head injury to Charlie Hodgson, touched down almost immediately, with eight points from the boot of Alex Goode handing Saracens a 13-3 half-time lead.
But Chiefs, who had scored through Phil Dolman’s penalty in the first-half, hit back after the break as Gareth Steenson found his range with two penalties – the second taking him past 100 Aviva Premiership points for the season.
Despite Marcelo Bosch adding another penalty for Saracens, the hosts almost completed the comeback late on but the TMO ruled Tom Johnson’s effort had come up short, leaving Chiefs having to settle for the losing bonus point.
It was the Chiefs who had the first chance to get points on the board inside the first minutes but Steenson pulled his kick wide in what was his first miss in the last 17 attempts in the Aviva Premiership.
Saracens were struck a blow when Hodgson was forced off but Ransom made sure to leave his mark immediately with the game’s first try.
Much of it was owed to the work of Chris Ashton – the England winger, back in the Sarries squad after returning from international duty, stepping in off the wing to run through the middle and feed Ransom for a simple score –Goode converting.
The Chiefs almost got themselves level when Ian Whitten, who had been out for nearly a month with a hamstring injury, collected a ball from Johnson but the TMO ruled the centre had grounded the ball short in the corner.
Exeter were letting a few errors creep into their game, with Dean Mumm stealing possession from a Sarries line out, only for Matt Jess to drop the ball behind his own try line and hand the visitors a five-metre attacking scrum.
Despite seeing off the initial play, the Chiefs came unstuck once again with Steenson handed time in the sin bin for a deliberate knock on and Goode knocked over the subsequent penalty for a 10-0 lead.
Despite being a man down, Exeter secured themselves a penalty when the visitors collapsed the scrum on 31 minutes, Dolman stepping up in the place of the absent Steenson to reduce the score to 10-3.
But Goode made it three kicks from three to re-establish his side’s ten point lead heading into the break thanks to a 30-metre penalty.
The home side came out with more purpose after the break, and their early pressure paid off as Steenson slotted over a long range penalty to take the scores to 13-6.
The second-half was proving to be a trade off in penalties, with Bosch then launching a 51-metre kick on 50 minutes that bounced over off the cross bar, but Steenson missed his second of the afternoon to leave the score at 16-6.
Bosch then had a chance to notch up his second penalty of the afternoon after Saracens again overpowered their opponents at the scrum just short of the hour but his kick went off target.
Exeter were continuing to enjoy plenty of possession as the second-half progressed, Johnson bursting through but being held up by a resolute Saracens defence just two metres out.
But despite being camped on their opposition’s try line for several minutes, they were unable to find the elusive try, although Steenson did manage to notch up his second penalty of the afternoon to reduce the difference to seven points.
The home side continued to press though, with Matt Jess just losing out to Ashton in a foot race to the line before winger Jack Nowell, on his first league appearance this season, also made a late break.
And with time almost up, the home fans thought they had scored with the ball recycled out to Johnson, the decision was refereed to the TMO but it went against them as Sarries held on for the win.