A record crowd at Sandy Park saw Exeter Chiefs finish their Aviva Premiership campaign by running in seven tries in their 44-16 victory over Sale but still miss out on the play-offs.
No one at Sandy Park wanted it to end this way. Not Exeter Chiefs, who did everything they could to reach the play-offs for the first time. Not Mark Cueto, whose last match for the club he joined in 2001 ended six minutes prematurely in the sin-bin. Not Sale Sharks who will miss out on top-tier European rugby next season.
The reverse side of the coin is that this has been Exeter’s best-ever season and their record crowd rose to applaud Cueto as the former England and Lions wing made his way down the touchline. His minor misdemeanour, a deliberate knock-down, did nothing to obscure the service he has given club and country for so long and was, in any case, outweighed three minutes later after the exchange of punches which earned a red card for Sale’s reserve prop, Ross Harrison, and a yellow for Alex Brown, his opposite number.
The Chiefs always knew it might come to this, pipped for a final place in the last four by the club from whom they have learned so much, Leicester. “In some of the last few seasons, our points total would have got us through,” Rob Baxter, the coach, said. “But we have taken great steps forward in our consistency and my job is to make sure we don’t draw breath.”
Little money would have been placed on the size of Exeter’s win at half-time. After setting off with a hiss and a roar, their discipline deserted them and two tries by Josh Beaumont, either side of the interval, kept Sale in contention. Then the visitors lost Johnny Leota to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Will Chudley and their game fell apart. In the space of 22 minutes, Exeter scored as many points and four tries, the best of them being a 60-metre sprint by Matt Jess after Ian Whitten, a belligerent presence throughout, created space deep in his own half.
Tries: Whitten, Nowell, White, Jess 2, Slade, McQuigan
Cons: Steenson 3
Tries: Beaumont 2
Pens: Cipriani 2
Exeter: J Nowell (M Bodilly, 80); I Whitten, H Slade, S Hill (B McGuigan, 46), M Jess; G Steenson, W Chudley (D Lewis, 54); B Moon (C Rimmer, 56), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle, 56), T Francis (A Brown, 56), D Mumm (capt), M Lees (D Welch, 68), D Armand (Francis, 80), B White (K Horstmann, 50), T Waldrom.
Sale: T Arscott (M Haley, 61); T Brady, J Leota (sin bin 54-65), S Tuitupou, M Cueto (sin bin 72); D Cipriani (J Ford, 68), C Cusiter (W Cliff, 54); E Roberts (R Harrison, 60), T Taylor (M Jones, 60), V Cobilas (C Parker, 60), J Mills (M Paterson, 54), N Hines, D Braid (capt; M Easter, 54), D Seymour (Roberts, 80), J Beaumont.
Referee: W Barnes (London).