If Saracens travelled light to the dark depths of Devon yesterday – a high-risk strategy, as the former Premiership champions' selector-in-chief Mark McCall readily admitted – they at least had the country's premier strike runner on the right wing. But while the lights appeared to be on in the mind of Chris Ashton, there was no one at home at the turning point of contest. Not for the first time in his career, Ashton did something daft when there was no particular need for him to do anything at all. As a result, a heavy price was paid.
Nine minutes into the second half, the England back could be seen joining a fractious maul that was just about running out of steam. The problem? He joined it shoulder first, making contact with the Exeter wing Matt Jess in the process. James Phillips, the unusually substantial home flanker, was sufficiently annoyed to send Ashton flying with a double-handed shove. Worse, the referee Sean Davey requested a television review of the incident and having been informed of the circumstances, pointed the miscreant in the direction of the sin bin.
During Ashton's enforced absence, Exeter scored the only try of a game that was as tight as a military bandsman's snare drum from first minute to last: clever work off a line-out from Chris Whitehead and James Scaysbrook and intelligent decision-making from Will Chudley allowing Jess to send the Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki sliding in at the left corner, just where Ashton would have been defending had he not been sitting in the stand.
McCall was far from convinced that the original incident should have been reviewed in the first place, on the grounds that there had been no suggestion of "serious foul play" – the starting point for any intervention by the so-called Television Match Official. He had a point, but as the current system is about as consistent as the Liberal Democrats' approach to university tuition fees, it was not an argument he was likely to win.
Rather than venture down that rocky road, he talked about discipline instead. Or rather, lack of discipline. "I didn't have a good view of what Chris did, but it was a rash act and the consequences can be pretty big in a game like that," the Ulsterman said. "They scored a try down his wing and ultimately it cost us the game."
Well ... yes and no. It could be argued that Saracens cost themselves the game when they decided to leave players as influential as the hooker Schalk Brits, the prop Matt Stevens, the lock Steve Borthwick, the No 8 Ernst Joubert and the stand-off Charlie Hodgson out of the starting line-up. Borthwick would certainly have dragged the visitors up by their bootlaces during a first half largely dominated by Exeter, who were driven along by the boot of Ignacio Mieres and the all-round excellence of the full-back Luke Arscott.
"We understand that there are downsides to the rotation system we use," acknowledged McCall afterwards, "but we also feel there are significant upsides, and that the proof of the pudding will come next May when our most experienced players are still fresh." The policy may well pay dividends: no one knows this better than Exeter, who adopted a similar approach in their promotion season in 2010. All the same, it is a difficult idea to sell to travelling supporters when they see a third of the front-line team play a mere 30 minutes of rugby rather than the full 80.
While Saracens took the best part of 74 minutes to threaten the Exeter line – James Short, worked free down the left after a characteristically high-class attacking intervention by Alex Goode, would have registered a match-winning five-pointer but for a brilliant tackle from Mieres – the Devonians, more obviously at home in the wind and rain, had chances throughout the game, if not in any great volume.
Frustratingly, they cramped their own style by putting themselves on the wrong side of the eagle-eyed Davey at the breakdown – none more so than the energetic flanker Scaysbrook, who must have felt more than a little victimised. "There was one penalty given against James when he was completely pinned at the bottom of a ruck and unable to move," said the Exeter coach Rob Baxter, in bemused tones. "At least we learnt the lesson. In the second half, we conceded only one penalty for not rolling away."
Exeter have been learning lessons, and fast, ever since they reached the top league. Yesterday's victory against one of the Premiership's most cussed, hard-bitten sides came just seven days after they had squandered a 14-point lead against London Welsh. A less resourceful bunch would have allowed that defeat to follow them around like a black cloud for weeks. As it was, they put it out of their minds instantly.
"We have a run of fixtures coming up, in the Premiership and the Heineken Cup, that no other Exeter side may ever experience," said Baxter. "We can either respond to the challenge positively by thinking of the great times we're about to share together, or we can approach the next few weeks thinking it will be too much for us." On this evidence, the chances of the latter mindset holding sway are distant indeed.
Exeter: Try Naqelevuki; Penalties Mieres 3. Saracens: Penalties Farrell 4 Exeter: L Arscott; P Dollman (M Foster, 62), I Whitten, S Naqelevuki, M Jess; I Mieres, H Thomas (W Chudley, 47); B Sturgess, C Whitehead (S Alcott, 63), C Rimmer, T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (A Muldowney, 59), J Phillips (B White, 51), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter. Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor (C Hodgson, 66), B Barritt, J Short; O Farrell (Hodgson, 24-33), N De Kock (R Wigglesworth, h-t); M Vunipola (R Gill, 45), J George (S Brits, 45), C Nieto (M Stevens, 50), A Hargreaves (S Borthwick, 45), M Botha, K Brown (capt), W Fraser, J Wray (E Joubert, 70). Referee: S Davey (Sussex).