Exeter score at the death to end Saracens’ double hopes
Simmonds crosses in the 80th minute to end European champions’ domestic campaign
Sam Simmonds’ last minute try sent Exeter to the English Premiership final. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty
Exeter 18 Saracens 16
Exeter ended Saracens’ hopes of a second successive European and domestic double in dramatic fashion at Sandy Park.
Replacement back-row forward Sam Simmonds scored an 80th-minute try to secure an 18-16 home triumph and halt Saracens’ reign as Aviva Premiership champions.
Seven days after lifting the European Champions Cup by beating Clermont Auvergne, Saracens looked to have again dug deep as replacement wing Mike Ellery’s 76th-minute touchdown appeared to floor the Chiefs.
Saracens, conquerors of Exeter in last season’s Premiership Twickenham showpiece, had hoped to emulate Leicester 15 years ago by retaining European and domestic titles, but the Chiefs had other ideas.
Wing Chris Wyles scored a 57th-minute try for Saracens, with captain Owen Farrell kicking two penalties, yet Exeter had just enough in the tank to keep alive hopes of being crowned English champions for the first time in their 146-year history.
Exeter welcomed back influential back-row forwards Don Armand and Thomas Waldrom, while international backs Henry Slade and Michele Campagnaro featured among the replacements after missing the Chiefs’ victory over west-country rivals Gloucester a fortnight ago.
Saracens arrived in Devon without skipper Brad Barritt, who was sidelined due to a calf injury, so Scotland international Duncan Taylor featured in midfield alongside Marcelo Bosch as a solitary change following last weekend’s Champions Cup triumph.
Farrell found his kicking range from a first opportunity, bisecting Exeter’s posts with a 45-metre penalty, but Saracens then saw flanker Michael Rhodes limp off — he was replaced by South African World Cup winner Schalk Burger — before wing Chris Ashton also departed.
Ashton, who set a new European Cup try-scoring record when he claimed his 37th tournament touchdown seven days ago, appeared to suffer a shoulder injury following an attempted tackle on Chiefs full-back Phil Dollman, and Ellery took over from him.
But the visitors kept going about their business, despite such extensive early disruption, and a second Farrell penalty made it 6-0 after 15 minutes.
Exeter barely escaped from their own half during the opening quarter, but it proved a different story after that as two Steenson penalties in quick succession tied things up before Saracens found themselves under sustained pressure.
It was an unfamiliar position for the European champions to find themselves in, yet their defence held firm as Exeter launched a number of attacks before Billy Vunipola made a brilliant tackle on his opposite number Waldrom and gained a relieving penalty for his side.
Exeter continued to press, though, and wing Jack Nowell looked to have ghosted clear, only to be stopped in his tracks by a try-saving tackle from Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, and an absorbing opening 40 minutes ended level at 6-6.
Saracens saw England and Lions prop Mako Vunipola go off for a head injury assessment within three minutes of the restart — Exeter lock Dave Dennis also went off after the pair collided — and, before the visitors could regroup, Chiefs struck.
Dollman made an initial break, and then it was a case of patiently going through the phases, aided by a decisive Ollie Devoto break, before Nowell pounced from close range.
Steenson kicked the angled conversion attempt, and Exeter found themselves seven points clear, but Saracens responded in trademark fashion as patient approach was rewarded when England lock Maro Itoje grasped a high pass and sent Wyles over.
Farrell drifted the touchline conversion attempt wide, and the final quarter was intriguingly set up, with Exeter leading by two points.
But just when Saracens looked down and out, Ellery struck, finishing off after collecting replacement hooker Schalk Brits’ pass — then came Exeter’s dramatic final flourish.