By Innings
March 5 2018

  The first thought about today’s game was to appreciate the work of the Exeter ground staff over the last couple of days.  After such a weather bomb, the pitch was remarkable, very playable and true.  The second thought was that Sarries would be hard pressed not to see a further five points added to the Chiefs’ advantage.  The third was that Sarries might well find themselves dropping back to third as the afternoon progressed, assuming a Wasps win and perhaps a TBP for them, or no LBP for Sarries.  

When I saw the team sheets, I wondered why the Premiership clubs accept the stupid decision that the top clubs in England play the senior club competition of the country in a conflict of sporting nonsense that sees the best players absent from their clubs for almost a third of the regular season.  Anyone going to watch today’s game might reasonably have wanted to see the best players of one club play the best players of the other.  Instead, both squads were missing the very players whom the public want to see and pay to see.  Although every player on both sides gave his all, there was no question about the impact that the absence of those players had on the quality of the game and perhaps on the way in which the season is developing.

The game itself was not a great advertisement for the sport.  Sarries began with their favoured advantage, playing into the wind and knowing what would be needed after the change-round.  That wind was indeed to be a factor, with some of the best attempts at kicking giving no distance to the defenders at Sarries opening end, and then little to Chiefs when they faced it.  The game began at very high tempo, and the consequent error and penalty counts were very high as well.  Sarries found themselves very much on the wrong side of referee Matthew Carley, as they found at just over 20 minutes gone, 6 penalties conceded and three of them converted into goals by the impressive young Joe Simmonds, a player who may well be about to force Rob Baxter to re-think his other back-line players’ best playing positions.  The penalty count also destroyed all Sarries’ impetus, when time and again they found ways to give up the ball, in turnovers, infringements or lost one to one contests.  Sarries seemed off the pace at home last week, and this week they seemed over-eager during this first period, pressing too impetuously and often with individual keenness but without the Wolfpack mentality.

As we approached half time, Sarries pressed the reset button a couple of times, and the result was a beautifully worked try.  No great flash of genius, just a well-timed hold and short pass by Marcelo, receipt by Ben Earl with perhaps 20 metres to cover, and a couple of defensive guards to avoid.  The young man has real speed and acceleration, with a sharp change of direction that took him neatly round Woodburn and under the posts.  9-7 with seven minutes to half-time would have been far more than Sarries deserved, and indeed Chiefs delivered a straightforward response as we came close to the break.  Sustained forward pressure, a fast ball out to the left, and Dollman in at the corner.  I would guess that the Sarries coaches felt that 14-7 was probably too rosy as a  reflection of the state of the game.

The second half showed that some important lessons of the first period had been learned.  The Sarries defensive line speed began to trouble Chiefs, and Schalla was able to score as a result of much improved Sarries use of the ball that took them up to the Chiefs’ line, and a penalty line-out that the forwards and not a few backs rolled over for a second try.  Nonetheless, the error count was ratcheting up.  George Kruis was apparently extremely luck not to be carded for what many referees would have called a deliberate knock-on as he came forward, too soon as well, the scrum penalty count rose, with a long string of scrum penalties that led to a penalty try on 72 minutes.  

The last eight minutes were chaotic.  Chiefs were not really hopeful of a third and fourth try, but were determined that four match points and nothing for Sarries would do just as well.  Sarries kitchen-sink’ed the final minutes, but as so often in this game, discipline or care for the ball were almost always the sign for another set of phases to fall apart.  Chiefs hung on, and 24-12 was about a fair result.  Chiefs deserved the win but not a TBP.  Sarries deserved as little as they got: you cannot play that sort of loose rugby against Chiefs and expect to come home with anything.

Wasps won at home against Irish, but could not find their fourth try. Tigers took five tries onto their bus home from Worcester, and Quins took the spoils in a very low-scoring day at the Stoop.  With Sale embarrassing the Gardens again, and Falcons doing the business in a desperate last minute tussle at Knigsholm, the table looks very interesting tonight.  Tigers have the scent of the play-offs in the nostrils yet again, Quins are ten points off the top table in Europe next year, and the crisis at the Gardens continues.  Not surprisingly, the commentators at Sandy Park were as much confused as any of us about the cryptic comments by the Gaffer when he was asked about George North’s absence from a line-up that needed him so badly this weekend.

I thought Matthew Carley was OK as referee, but that this was not his best game.  The mystery of why he replaced Christopher Ridley, a novice at this level, before the game, remains.

All in all, a bitty weekend, little to inspire the casual watcher to become a supporter, and little to cause me to believe that the people who run rugby as a professional sport are up to facing the challenges of money demands, player welfare or fixture management.

Exeter Chiefs

15 Phil Dollman; 14 Lachie Turner; 13 Henry Slade; 12 Sam Hill (Whitten 56'); 11 Olly Woodburn; 10 Joe Simmonds (Steenson 75'); 9 Nic White; 1 Ben Moon (Hepburn 30'); 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (Yeandle 61');  3 Tomas Francis (Holmes 61'); 4 Sam Skinner; 5 Jonny Hill; 6 Dave Ewers (Lees 56'); 7 Don Armand; 8 Thomas Waldrom ( S.Simmonds 49')

Replacements ; 16 Jack Yeandle; 17 Alec Hepburn; 18 Greg Holmes; 19 Mitch Lees; 20 Sam Simmonds;21 Stu Townsend; 22 Gareth Steenson;23 Ian Whitten

Tries: Dollman (36'); Penalty try (72')
Penalties: J.Simmonds 4

Saracens 15 Alex Goode; 14 Nathan Earle; 13 Marcelo Bosch; 12 Brad Barritt (Malins 41'); 11 Chris Wyles (Segun 42');10 Alex Lozowski;9 Ben Spencer (Whiteley 72'); 1 Richard Barrington (Thompson-Stringer 61'); 2 Schalk Brits (Spurling 72'); 3 Juan Figallo (Lamositele 50'); 4 Dominic Day (Cowan 53'); 5 George Kruis: 6 Nick Isiekwe; 7 Ben Earl (Flanagan 78'); 8 Jackson Wray

Replacements: 16 Scott Spurling; 17 Hayden Thompson-Stringer; 18 Titi Lamositele; 19 Mark Flanagan; 20 Blair Cowan; 21 Tom Whiteley; 22 Max Malins; 23 Rotimi Segun

Tries: Earl (33'); Bosch (40'+1')
Conversion: Spencer