Match Reaction: Exeter Chiefs 18 Saracens 16
Saracens’ dominance in Aviva Premiership Rugby was finally ended by Exeter Chiefs on Saturday, and while they had to do it the hard way, forwards coach Rob Hunter insists he always believed his side would triumph in their semi-final.
The hosts trailed with 30 seconds remaining at Sandy Park after Mike Ellery had put the Wolfpack ahead five minutes from time with a sensational, acrobatic finish.
But up popped Sam Simmonds with the clock ticking into the red to barge his way over the whitewash and make it 18-16, with the Chiefs’ character coming to the fore.
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After Owen Farrell and Gareth Steenson had swept two penalties apiece through the uprights, Jack Nowell and Chris Wyles had traded scores early in the second half – although crucially the conversion for the latter was missed by Farrell.
And while the game came down to a grandstand finish that lifted the lid off a packed Sandy Park, Hunter was adamant that the Chiefs bench were always confident of reaching Twickenham for the second straight year.
“We never thought it was gone,” said Hunter. “It never is with our lads. They can always surprise us so we never thought it was gone.
— Jeremy Guscott (@JeremyGuscott) May 20, 2017
“We thought it would be tough, but we got the scrum, and then Sladey’s kick was brilliant to bring us into driving range and that was the important thing.
“When I get the chance to watch the game again it will be up there – it is certainly on of the biggest games I’ve ever been involved in.
“In some respects it is probably bigger than last year’s final. Last year was a grand day out for us but this year, we are a different side.
“It means nothing if we go down there next week and don’t perform.”
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) May 20, 2017
Meanwhile Mark McCall could do nothing but sit back and applaud Exeter Chiefs for a resolute display in a sensational game of rugby – in particular Henry Slade.
The replacement slammed a 60-metre penalty from inside his own half into the corner, a massive gamble in the circumstances, but it paid dividends as it set up the platform for Simmonds’ try.
And while he remained proud of his charges, he admitted that after their European triumph last weekend, perhaps Sarries lacked their usual liveliness around the park.
He said: “It was one of the greatest kicks of all time from Henry Slade. If he puts it anywhere else then we are probably sitting here talking about one of the great wins and the great fights from us, but he got it.
“It was a funny game; I thought we were pretty good for 20 minutes and had a lot of opportunities and came away with relatively little.
“It felt like we were hanging on and were tried and didn’t have the same energy we normally do, which was understandable.
— Tribe Talk (@exchiefspodcast) May 20, 2017
“We conceded early in the second half and a lot of teams then just go away. We kept on fighting and scrapping and finding a way to stay in the contest.
“We don’t judge ourselves on outcomes. We are sad, of course we are, and it will be painful. But we can be unbelievably proud the qualities we have shown in that second half.”
Exeter Chiefs: Dollman (Slade 68); Nowell, Whitten, Devoto (Campagnaro 70), Short; Steenson, Townsend (Chudley 54); Moon (Rimmer 58), Cowan-Dickie (Yeandle 58), Williams (Francis 58); Dennis (Lees 42-47), Parling; Horstmann (Lees 60), Armand, Waldrom (Simmonds 68)
Saracens: Goode; Ashton (Ellery 11), Bosch, Taylor, Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth; M Vunipola (Lamositele 42-47), George (Brits 45), Koch; Itoje, Kruis; Rhodes (Burger 10), Wray, B Vunipola
Replacements not used: Du Plessis, Brown, Spencer, Lozowski
Exeter Chiefs 18
Tries: Nowell, Simmonds
Pens: Steenson (2)
Tries: Wyles, Ellery
Pens: Farrell (2)
Referee: Wayne Barnes