Nothing is yet settled in this season’s Premiership but several things became clearer on a breezy day in north London as Saracens secured their playoff place. The most glaring is that it will take something special to beat Sarries on their own artificial pitch if they do secure a home semi ‑ final draw while fifth-placed Exeter now have it all to do simply to be involved in the knockout stages.
There was also no ignoring the contribution of Owen Farrell as his team scored 28 second-half points to turn a 15-10 half-time deficit into a significant bonus-point victory which has propelled them within four points of Leicester leaders.
“Phenomenal” and “incredible” were two of the words used by Mark McCall to describe his captain and there was no disputing the steely influence which rightly earned Farrell the award for player of the match.
With three games left, starting with a trip to Worcester this weekend, it is also worth noting that Maro Itoje sat out this fixture while Max Malins was forced to drop out on the eve of the match. McCall also believes Farrell, having missed a big chunk of rugby through injury, has plenty of improvement still left in him.
“His passing and his kicking and his offloads – all of that was phenomenal, really,” McCall said. “In terms of what he did during the game he was outstanding but emotionally he was incredible. He hasn’t played many games for us in the Premiership so it’s great to have him back. He looked OK to me today but he’s going to get better. ”
The wind blowing straight down the field inevitably played its part in Sarries’ increasingly strong performance but this was also a game which neatly summed up Exeter’s whole season. At times they looked purposeful and slick with the ball, with Henry Slade having a decent game at fly-half, but they just couldn’t sustain those periods of excellence for long enough. As against Munster in Europe, they also struggled to capitalize on all the chances they created, leaving them in danger of not making the final four after six straight final appearances.
“It was probably one of our best attacking performances in a lot of ways, other than getting over the try line,” said Rob Baxter, the Exeter director of rugby.
At least Jack Nowell’s impending wedding – only rugby players get married on a Monday – offers some temporary distraction but Baxter, who is now giving his players 10 days off, is not yet conceding his side’s race is run. “We’ll know exactly where we are after next week’s round. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we’re in a position where two wins will see us through to fourth spot. ”
Two bonus-point victories, at Bristol and at home against Harlequins will almost certainly be required, however, with a five ‑ point half-time lead here always looking skinny for a side lacking Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan ‑ Dickie, Jonny Hill, Harry Williams and Dave Ewers, all of them either injured or rested. Despite their early possession and territory it was Sarries who scored the game’s first try, Aled Davies putting Elliot Daly clean through a midfield hole to complete a slick first-phase strike move from a lineout.
With what felt like a 10-point lead at their backs, Exeter needed a good second quarter and, upping the tempo accordingly, the points began to come. A series of calculated blindside raids down the left touchline yielded a score for Sam Skinner before the faithful Ian Whitten delivered a deliciously timed little pass to a flying Olly Woodburn to put the visitors 15-10 up.
Some interesting decisions from referee Craig Maxwell-Keys, however, helped slow their momentum and Sarries, with Farrell kicking seven out of eight, steadily took the initiative. Maitland spotted a mismatch to surge over for his third’s third try and another line-break from Rotimi Segun put Ben Earl away for the bonus point with 11 minutes left.
Stu Townsend did grab a late consolation but, despite Stuart Hogg throwing one ball into touch and another at Whitten’s toes with space beckoning, Saracens’ defensive application deserved its reward.
“Our desire to roll our sleeves up in our own 22 and not allow them to score was a really pleasing part of our performance,” McCall said.
Baxter, though, does not accept Exeter are now a spent force. “If finishing fourth or fifth is a reset year for us, a hell of a lot of clubs would take that. There have been a lot of clubs that have spent 10 years bumbling along the bottom as a reset. ”