Saracens’ unbeaten run comes to an end with defeat at Exeter
PUBLISHED: 17:21 22 December 2018 | UPDATED: 10:09 03 January 2019
PA Wire/PA Images
Gallagher Premiership: Exeter Chiefs 31 Saracens 13
Saracens’ 22-game unbeaten record ended at Sandy Park as title rivals Exeter beat them emphatically to regain top spot in the Gallagher Premiership.
Chiefs’ 31-13 bonus point victory took them three points above their opponents, who had not lost since being defeated by European Champions Cup opponents Leinster on April 1.
It was also Saracens’ first Premiership reversal for more than nine months - when Exeter beat them in Devon.
England front-row forwards Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams scored tries, while Exeter also gained a penalty try 12 minutes from time before number eight Matt Kvesic’s touchdown secured a five-point maximum.
Fly-half Gareth Steenson kicked a penalty and two conversions, while Joe Simmonds added the final conversion to take Exeter past 30 points.
Saracens managed two early Owen Farrell penalties - they led 6-0 midway through the first half - but did not score again until the 76th minute when scrum-half Ben Spencer claimed a consolation try that Farrell converted.
Exeter were full value for an impressive win, and in toppling their visitors, they also put paid to the possibility - albeit an unlikely one - of Saracens recording an invincible season.
Kvesic returned to Exeter’s back-row after missing the Champions Cup victory over his former club Gloucester last week, while a late change saw captain Jack Yeandle sidelined through illness, so Cowan-Dickie took over at hooker and Steenson as skipper.
Saracens, meanwhile, fielded England international back Alex Lozowski on the wing instead of Sean Maitland, with lock Nick Isiekwe and flanker Calum Clark also gaining starts.
And the visitors started strongly in a repeat of last season’s Premiership final, moving six points clear through two Farrell penalties in the opening 11 minutes.
Saracens also went close to a try during that initial onslaught as full-back Alex Goode and prop Vincent Koch both almost breached Exeter’s defence, with the Chiefs finding themselves under considerable pressure.
But the home side gradually got things going, establishing a position inside their opponents’ half before Saracens skipper Brad Barritt was forced off due to a head injury.
And Exeter pounced before Saracens could regroup when Spencer’s attempted close-range clearance kick wad charged down by Chiefs lock Sam Skinner, and the ball ballooned into the air before Cowan-Dickie reacted quickest to touch down.
Steenson’s angled conversion put Exeter one point ahead, and Saracens suddenly began to look vulnerable under the high ball as wing Alex Lewington spilled catches on three separate occasions, while Goode also lost grip of the ball as Chiefs opted for an aerial route.
The home side then gained further reward for a sustained spell of dominance when Steenson kicked a penalty that secured a 10-6 interval advantage.
And the second half began in disappointing fashion for Saracens, with Farrell launching a 40-metre penalty that hit the post before flanker Michael Rhodes was forced off after appearing to suffer a shoulder injury.
The third quarter proved scoreless, but Exeter exerted a vice-like grip shortly afterwards, with replacement hooker Elvis Taione being denied a try by the television match official before the Chiefs forwards were rewarded for their perseverance.
Flanker Sean Lonsdale was held up just short of the line, but he managed to free possession and Williams crashed over for a try that Steenson converted.
And Saracens were at sixes and sevens again just four minutes later when they conceded a penalty try for collapsing a maul as Exeter’s forwards charged relentlessly on.
Saracens’ South Africa international flanker Schalk Burger was sin-binned as a result, and the reigning Premiership champions’ long unbeaten run had come to a grinding halt.
Spencer then applied the finish to a smart move, but Kvesic had the final say to spark scenes of celebration among a capacity crowd.