Saracens’ dream of the “double double”, winning both the domestic league and European titles in successive seasons, came to a heart-breaking end in the final 90 seconds of this pulsating Premiership semi-final as Exeter reached their second final in a row.
Henry Slade’s brave and brilliantly-judged penalty kick up the touchline to give Exeter a line-out throw seven metres from the Saracens goalline was crucial, as the Chiefs’ tried-and-trusted driving maul ended with replacement forward Sam Simmonds grounding the winning try.
Sandy Park went potty as Exeter moved through to meet the winners of today’s second semi-final between Wasps and Leicester, at Twickenham next Saturday.
But it could easily have ended differently after injury-afflicted Saracens grabbed a 16-13 lead with a stunning try five minutes before the final whistle.
A line-out on halfway across the field to where Mike Ellery – on for Sarries as an early replacement for the crocked Chris Ashton – did well to keep infield in a tackle.
The ball was recycled until replacement hooker Schalk Brits shovelled a fine pass off his left hand to Ellery who brought off a remarkable diving finish, even as he was being tipped almost head over heels by Slade.
It was all in keeping with an unpredictable semi-final that had more twists and turns than the best Hollywood thriller, as Saracens attempted to win an 11th knockout match in a row in the Premiership and Europe.
Playing with a stiff Devonian wind behind them, Saracens led 6-0 in the opening quarter, with two penalties from Owen Farrell, captain for the day in the absence of the injured centre Brad Barritt, who revealed today he had played last week’s European Champions Cup final victory over Clermont Auvergne with a fractured hand.
Whether Saracens would be able to gather themselves and summon the necessary furies to quell an Exeter team on a spectacular streak of form was one of the prime questions as the reigning champions came into their seventh straight Premiership semi-final – three of them having led onto the title in the final, in 2011, 2015 and 2016.
Farrell’s excellent 45-metre kick settled them in, and another from shorter range in the 15th minute could have been embellished by a try but Marcelo Bosch was tackled just short, and a rushed tapped penalty led to nothing.
It was a similar story at the other end as a threatening Exeter five-metre scrum was brilliantly repelled by Billy Vunipola - twice over. The Saracens No 8, who was man of the match in Edinburgh seven days ago, hammered his opposite number Thomas Waldrom to a standstill and followed up with a cute turnover at a ruck, using Exeter bodies to support himself while he slapped his hands over the ball.
Exeter certainly benefited from a battery-charging rest last weekend, on the back of nine try bonuses on the trot in the Premiership.
The Chiefs had not lost a league match since October, and since drawing with Wasps on 12 February they had eight straight Premiership wins. The club promoted to the Premiership in 2010, and who lost their first Twickenham final in this competition to Saracens last May, must have believed this was their time to shine, and skipper Gareth Steenson’s penalty goals on 26 and 30 minutes had the teams level at the interval.
The first 40 minutes had also cost Saracens their biggest try threat on the wing as Toulon-bound Ashton went off with a shoulder problem, and the in-form flanker Michael Rhodes went too, hobbling on his right leg.
It looked ominous for Saracens when Jack Nowell nosed out of a ruck for an Exeter try two minutes into the second half, following a jinking break by Phil Dollman, and Steenson added the conversion.
But there was champion quality aplenty from Sarries as Farrell, Alex Goode and Maro Itoje passed for left wing Chris Wyles to score in the corner.
Exeter’s scrum earned a couple of penalties, and Thomas Waldrom’s midfield rumbles kept Saracens, who had not lost a Premiership semi-final since meeting Northampton at Allianz Park in 2013, backtracking.
Then Ellery’s amazing try flipped the match around with Slade’s touch kick from a scrum penalty, Dave Dennis’s line-out catch and Simmonds’s burrowing in the maul remarkably sealing the deal for the Chiefs.
Exeter Chiefs: tries: Nowell, Simmonds; conversion: Steenson; penalties: Steenson 2
Saracens: tries: Wyles, Ellery: penalties: Farrell 2.
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell, I Whitten, O Devoto, J Short; G Steenson (capt), S Townsend; B Moon, L Cowan-Dickie, H Williams, D Dennis, G Parling, K Horstmann, D Armand, T Waldrom.
Replacements: J Yeandle, C Rimmer, T Francis, M Lees, S Simmonds, W Chudley, H Slade, M Campagnaro.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, D Taylor, C Wyles; O Farrell (capt), R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, J George, V Koch, M Itoje, G Kruis, M Rhodes, J Wray, B Vunipola.
Replacements: S Brits, T Lamositele, P du Plessis, K Brown, S Burger, B Spencer, A Lozowski, M Ellery.
Referee: W Barnes (RFU).Reuse content