Thomas Waldrom continued his sensational try scoring record to help Exeter Chiefs secure a stunning Aviva Premiership Rugby victory over Saracens and set up a nailbiting final weekend in the battle for the top four.
The Chiefs No.8 powered over in both halves after Luke Cowan-Dickie’s early score to lay the foundations for an important scalp, Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles finishing fine efforts for the hosts.
A flowing first 40 minutes was replaced in the second half by a tighter and more edgy spectacle, but Rob Baxter’s men proved their mettle when Waldrom’s second try sealed the points.
The result sees Exeter leapfrog their opponents into the top four, with both teams – as well as Leicester Tigers – still unsure of their semi-final fate going into the final round of fixtures.
In a game labelled by some as an unofficial Aviva Premiership Rugby quarter-final, it was the visitors who registered the first points of the afternoon, Gareth Steenson atoning for a snatched drop goal miss by slotting a seventh-minute penalty.
But it was not to be a half dominated by the boot, as Ashton sparked a period of three tries in seven minutes.
The flying winger supplied the finishing touch, but it was a score engineered by Jamie George, the Saracens hooker shifting through the gears to exploit a gap and send Ashton over unchallenged.
Charlie Hodgson added the extras, but it didn’t take long for Exeter to regain the initiative, as Cowan-Dickie powered over from close range following a period of exerted pressure on the Sarries line – the nerveless boot of Steenson again obliging.
If that try was a work of determination and attrition, Saracens’ immediate response was an artistic achievement.
Maro Itoje forced the turnover with an explosive midfield hit, and when the ball was shipped wide, David Strettle produced a delightful offload out of the back of the hand to send Wyles racing away for his 12th score of the season – after the TMO adjudged the former England winger’s pass had not drifted forward.
Perhaps antagonised by the sight of Wyles creeping up behind him on the try scoring charts, Waldrom notched his 15th of the Aviva Premiership Rugby season in typically bullish fashion to give Baxter’s men the lead again with five minutes left before the break, although Hodgson levelled it up from the tee with the final act of the first 40.
After the breathlessness that came before the break, the second half fell into a more disjoined rhythm, with both sides resorting to continued kicking exchanges.
Alex Goode, impressive all day, sparked a counter attack that almost resulted in Sarries’ third try of the afternoon, but despite some fine handling from replacement Schalk Brits and Ashton, the Exeter defence swept back to clear up the danger on the left flank.
That moment did result in a penalty for the hosts though, and the returning Owen Farrell got his name on the scoresheet with a successful attempt from in front.
Farrell missed a much more difficult effort a few minutes later as the hosts looked to secure the victory that would ensure their place in the end-of-season play-offs for a sixth consecutive year.
But as the match moved into its final ten minutes, the pendulum swung once again in Exeter’s favour, Waldrom equalling Neil Back’s Premiership try scoring record for a forward by slamming the ball down at the base of the post following a patient series of drives by the Chiefs pack.
Saracens still had time to mount several final attacks, but the stoicism shown in defence by the visitors was symbolic of their tireless efforts all afternoon, and it was fitting that a powerful tackle brought about the knock-on which ended the game – and saw Exeter into the top four at Saracens’ expense.