There was an amusing moment in the posh stand at Sandy Park when the official Exeter mascot, kitted out in an eye-catching Cheyenne suit complete with full-feathered head-dress, made his way towards the broadcasting box with the clear intention of winding up the television analyst Austin Healey, who responded with a glare and a clenching of the fist. The former England back was not being entirely serious in threatening to stage his own version of Custer’s Last Stand, but it was still the most competitive contest of the afternoon.
If Harlequins were not wholly blown away on their latest trek to the West Country, it was only because their hosts still have a habit of disappearing into themselves at important times. Had Exeter been better at convincing themselves they weren’t dreaming – that they really were several times better than their opponents in virtually every department – they would have scored at least 50.
Conor O’Shea, the Londoners’ rugby director, prefaced his after-match response by saying that he had no wish to “take anything away from Exeter’s performance”, and then proceeded to lambast his charges for presenting the home side with the three “Ps” that lay at the heart of the union game: possession, position and points. Exeter were handed all three on a plate of bone china, gift-wrapped for the occasion. Quins could not have been more conciliatory had they performed an abrupt U-turn halfway down the M3.
“I feel pretty embarrassed, if I’m honest – pretty emotional and pretty frustrated too – because we didn’t look like a top side out there,” O’Shea said, bitter disappointment etched into his features. “It just wasn’t us, and that’s what is so hard to take.
“We have to show some character and show it immediately, because the season can slip away from you quickly when you perform in the way we’ve just performed.
“It’s hard to concede a try from a cross-field kick when the opposition winger isn’t even on the pitch, yet we managed it somehow.”
That last comment was a reference to a second-half aerial collision involving two of the England backs who played through last season’s Six Nations: the Exeter wing Jack Nowell, making his first Premiership start after long-term injury, and the Quins full-back Mike Brown. Both men left the ground in an effort to claim a high diagonal kick from Gareth Steenson, although only Brown looked wholly serious about it, gaining higher altitude and extending his arms skywards in search of a catch. Nowell hit his rival amidships and sent him crashing to earth before scooping up the loose ball and touching down for a try that had next to no chance of being awarded. Sure enough, the score was ruled out and Nowell was packed off to the cooler for his trouble.
“I don’t understand the rule,” O’Shea said. “There was no malice on Nowell’s part, but I really can’t see why the decision was referred to the television match official.”
Rob Baxter, the Exeter boss, was equally nonplussed, if for different reasons. “It seems now that the decision is automatically awarded to the player who gets highest,” he said. “That could well prove dangerous. You might win a yellow card call against the opposition and injure yourself in the process.”
What happened next really got O’Shea’s goat. With Nowell twiddling his thumbs in the sin bin, Steenson sent another kick spiralling towards precisely the same corner of the field, now inhabited by the Exeter centre Henry Slade, who gathered the ball and cut inside before freeing hooker Jack Yeandle on a glory run to the line. If it was an intelligent decision by Steenson to hit Quins in the place they least expected to be hit, the Londoners made it awfully easy for Slade to wreak his havoc.
It was hardly as though the most talked-about midfielder in the country needed their help. Not for the first time this season, Slade played beautifully – so beautifully, indeed, that it is hard to imagine him not making the cut when the England coach Stuart Lancaster names his new elite squad next month.
The youngster’s goal-kicking from distance was sublime, leaving aside one second-half slice, and when he positioned himself as an alternative first receiver to Steenson he positively oozed confidence. He also tackled his weight, thereby putting himself in the good books of Andy Farrell, the bad cop to Lancaster’s good one.
Mind you, no one left more Quins lying in shallow graves than the Exeter blind-side flanker Dave Ewers, who, together with his back-row partners Ben White and Thomas Waldrom, made a horrible mess of a Quins unit featuring such luminaries as Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter.
Baxter believes Ewers is pressing a claim for international honours – “that was a big man’s performance from him,” he enthused – and on this evidence, he cannot be far wrong.
Quins, meanwhile, are getting it wrong on any number of fronts. “If I was London Welsh,” muttered O’Shea, thinking ahead to the Londoners’ meeting with the Premiership’s whipping boys at The Stoop this coming weekend, “I’d be looking at us and saying ‘we’ll give this a crack’.” Of all the damning things he could have said about his team, that was just about the most brutal. My, they have some work to do.Reuse content