Many a promoted club might have crumbled when faced with trips to the previous year's top three in their first two months in the division. Not Exeter, who are fast becoming the story of this or any other Premiership season. Their close defeats at Leicester and Northampton were mere curtain-raisers to this stunning victory over a Saracens team as dilapidated as the Watford stadium which they are apparently keen to leave.
Sarries' willingness to try almost anything to create a buzz about what they do was emphasised by last week's signing of Gavin Henson, the Wales centre who has not played for 19 months and was not here as he was busy preparing for his television ballroom dancing last night. Natch, darling. The chairman, Nigel Wray, and the club's wealthy backers are convinced there is plenty of support among London's 10 million inhabitants, so to borrow from another perplexed sporting figurehead, Delia Smith, where are they? Not in Watford, any more. The team who lost to Leicester in last May's Premiership final were watched by around 6,500 spectators yesterday.
The facilities at Watford are a hotch-potch and Sarries say they are looking for a new home, which Wray believes must be theirs to own. The Copthall athletics stadium in Hendon and an undeveloped site in Elstree have been mooted but cost, local politics and nimbyism would be significant hurdles. Meanwhile, no one is sure how many of the 40,000-plus punters who turn up to Saracens' occasional matches at Wembley can be converted into committed followers.
One of those Wembley dates, against Leinster in the Heineken Cup a fortnight ago, combined with this result to make it two home defeats in a row. Asked if this was the biggest day in Exeter's history, as well as their first away win in the Premiership, the Chiefs' head coach, Rob Baxter, said: "In some ways this is the best day so far. We feel we had to make a breakthrough when we'd been in touch in a game but come short. But I still think getting here [into the Premiership] was the greatest step we had to make."
Baxter's Saracens counterpart, Brendan Venter, would not comment on next Thursday's Heineken Cup disciplinary hearing in Dublin, for his comments on refereeing in that competition. He did his best to be complimentary about Exeter. "They came here with a team of unknowns," said Venter, "they got stuck in and beat us convincingly."
Exeter know their strengths and they stick to them. The forwards, epitomised by the flanker Tom Johnson, run hard and straight and do their damnedest to avoid getting isolated. In the scrum they drew two penalties in the first half – the first allowed Ryan Davis, starting in place of the injured fly-half and goal-kicker Gareth Steenson, to give Exeter the lead after his opposite number, Alex Goode, had missed a 40-metre penalty.
Goode kicked a penalty after 25 minutes but with less than a minute to go to half-time Davis jinked through a gap to score the first of Exeter's two tries. James Hanks's line-out catch near halfway paved the way before Andy Higgins, Luke Arscott and Baxter's brother, Richie at No 8, stole crucial metres in the Saracens 22. Davis converted.
Goode's penalty early in the second half and a couple of turnovers suggested Sarries were getting a grip but Davis, who left Bath last summer with hardly the finest reputation as a reliable kicker, thumped over a beauty on 55 minutes to restore Exeter's seven-point lead at 13-6. It set up a pulsating final quarter.
A penalty for Exeter falling offside was kicked by Goode in the 64th minute and Saracens piled forward from two scrums, Richard Wigglesworth darting smartly round the short side of one and Exeter charged down behind the other. Still the Chiefs were able to clear and they very nearly scored at the other end as Dave Strettle retreated rapidly to stave off Arscott.
Disrupted by a broken finger suffered by their England squad centre Brad Barritt – Venter estimated a six-week lay-off – Saracens succumbed in the 71st minute. Exeter swarmed around a desperate pass by Goode, scooped it up between Haydn Thomas and Davis, and the loosehead prop Brett Sturgess galloped 20 metres to the left-hand corner with Strettle hanging on his back like a jockey. Davis maintained his perfect record with a stylish conversion and kicked a penalty as Saracens ran down one last blind alley.
Saracens C Wyles; N Cato (D Strettle, 40), K Ratuvou, N Mordt (B Barritt, 40; M Parr, 68), M Tagicakibau; A Goode, N de Kock (R Wigglesworth, 50); D Carstens (R Skuse, 73), E Reynecke (J George, 56), C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (H Smith, 56), K Brown (J Melck, 50), E Joubert, J Burger.
Exeter Chiefs L Arscott; A Higgins, P Dollman, B Rennie (S Naqelevuki, 50), M Foster; R Davis, H Thomas; B Sturgess, N Clark (S Alcott, 53), C Budgen (H Tui, 70), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (P Kimlin, 77), T Johnson, R Baxter, J Scaysbrook.
Referee T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).Reuse content