MATCH REPORT | Saracens Men 40 - 22 Exeter Chiefs
Saracens Men moved back in to the top-four of the Gallagher Premiership after a classic 40-22 bonus-point victory over Exeter Chiefs at a sold-out StoneX Stadium.
The Men in Black, who knew they needed a victory to bring themselves back in to contention wrestled the game away from their opponents in the second half to give themselves a huge confidence boost ahead of the Six Nations break.
Sarries had plenty of intensity from the off and both Rotimi Segun and Theo McFarland had early sighters in the air from cross-field kicks.
The early pressure paid off with just six minutes gone as James Hadfield crossed to send StoneX wild. A penalty was kicked to the corner, and then an incredible rolling maul hammered over from 20 metres to allow Hadfield to dot down. The conversion came back off the post, but it was fair to say that the hosts had started with the bit between their teeth.
However just when it looked like Sarries were in control the Chiefs hit back with a try of their own to level proceedings. Multiple phases in the 22 gave them the field position, and then a looping pass to Olly Woodburn on the left wing gave him an easy finish in the corner to make it 5-5 with 10 minutes played.
Andy Christie almost responded in perfect fashion as he broke down the right wing, but his inside pass was grabbed by a Chiefs hand and they could clear.
Christie, who was everywhere in the early stages then turned provider to set up a brilliant try for Ivan van Zyl. The Scotland back-rower broke away from the base of a ruck, and despite being hauled down an acrobatic offload found the scrum-half who could use his pace to race under the posts. The extras from Owen Farrell made it 12-5 after 15 minutes.
Harvey Skinner had a chance to cut the lead to five with a penalty, but he snatched at it and it dragged wide to the left of the posts.
Farrell, who was enjoying himself with real licence to play then almost picked out Alex Lewington with another cross-field kick but a cruel bounce meant it trickled in to touch.
Another chance then followed as Olly Harley took advantage of turnover ball and looked to release Segun, but just as he went to gather it the ball popped out of his grasp and Exeter got the scrum.
Exeter then punished Sarries for not taking their chances, as they got their second try of the match courtesy of Greg Fisilau. A penalty was kicked to the corner, and smart thinking saw them go straight to the front and the number eight was never going to be stopped from close range. Josh Hodge them converted from the touchline to make it 12-12 as we headed towards half time.
Farrell then edged the hosts back in front with a penalty from in front of the posts, and then Sarries weathered another storm as they held up a rolling maul on their line.
In the final play of the half Hodge kicked a penalty from just over 40 metres to mean the sides went down the tunnel at half time level at 15-15.
Sarries made the dream start to the second half, as Juan Martin Gonzalez went over for try number three just 50 seconds after the restart. Segun’s brilliant kick chase forced Hodge to cough the ball up, and then the flying back-rower pounced on it to dot down in the corner. Farrell’s incredible touchline conversion put his side seven ahead.
Exeter then had a golden chance to get level as Ollie Devoto found space in the 22, but an incredible bit of defence from Billy Vunipola forced a knock on.
The visitors took their next chance though, as they went from one end of the pitch to the other in the blink of an eye. Christie’s long-range kick pinned Hodge back on his own line but he then ran 70 metres and some neat hands released Rusi Tuima who could run clear. Hodge then added the conversion to make it 22-22 with half an hour remaining.
Sarries did hit the front once again as we entered the final quarter, an over-eager Chiefs defence strayed offside and Farrell punished them as his kick sailed through the posts.
Farrell, whose influence in the game was growing by the minute then hit a beautiful drop goal from 35 metres out as the lead grew to six points to give the fans some real relief.
The hosts then turned the screw and the bonus point try arrived with 15 minutes to go to send StoneX wild. McFarland looked to be in in the corner however he was dragged down, but Hadfield then picked a line that a centre would be proud of and hammered through for his second of the afternoon. Farrell converted once again as the lead grew to 35-22.
The cherry was then added to the top as McFarland pounced on a dropped ball to dot down in the corner to confirm a memorable win.
They then relied on the boot in the closing stages to see out what could be a season-defining victory, as their attempt to go back-to-back in the Premiership starts to gather significant momentum.