A big game and an even bigger result for Exeter. The home side have not had the smoothest of calendar years, but a try apiece for Tom O’Flaherty and Luke Cowan-Dickie in front of a reinvigorated crowd made it another sobering trip west for a Saracens team who tend not to find Devon the happiest of hunting grounds.
The second-placed Londoners, who lost the try count 2-0, could have few real complaints with Exeter’s fifth straight home league victory over their opponents, partly assisted by the visitors’ lack of self-discipline.
While the home pack, reinforced by the return of Cowan-Dickie, Jonny Hill and Jonny Gray, were excellent, the game was notable for the unusually high number of times Saracens were penalised for dissent or unsportsmanlike comments.
The referee, Luke Pearce, seeking to avoid any repeat of the acrimony that has hung over this fixture, took exception to his decisions being questioned from an early stage and at one point marched Billy Vunipola back 20 metres for two successive backchat offences.
Mako Vunipola was also singled out, with Pearce suggesting it was “soul-destroying” for officials to have to deal with a constant stream of critical commentary.
“Every time I make a decision I don’t want three of your players questioning me,” he told Sarries’ co-captains, Jackson Wray and Alex Goode, having warned both sides before kick-off that he would not stand for any nonsense.
Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, said his team had been their own worst enemies. “We were let down today by inaccuracy and ill-discipline,” he said.
“We were marched back three times, which is not good enough. It’s not just frustrating, it’s highly costly. It cost us points and it cost us decisions later because you’re on the wrong side of the referee and things you deserve you don’t get.
“One or two of the players, who I won’t name, have already apologised to their teammates because they recognise that it’s not what we need.”
Given the slimness of the final margin, there was no escaping the direct effect all this careless talk had on the outcome, although the man of the match, Cowan-Dickie, and the similarly excellent Henry Slade looked in no mood to be denied either way. The margin might have been significantly wider had Exeter not blown a try at the end, having also had a 10th-minute effort from Sam Simmonds ruled out on the advice of the TMO when Slade was judged, in the buildup, to have been marginally in front of Joe Simmonds when the latter got his boot to a loose ball on the ground.
For all Exeter’s possession, though, they were 6-3 behind on the scoreboard a minute before the interval. They needed a flash of inspiration from somewhere and it duly arrived when, with an advantage being played, Simmonds’s cross kick towards the left corner was superbly gathered above the covering Aled Davies by a leaping O’Flaherty, who gleefully returned to earth to score.
It gave Exeter a two-point advantage to defend entering the second-half, prompting a tense third quarter, dominated by tactical kicking. It was Saracens who finally broke the deadlock via Lozowski’s third penalty, awarded for offside, before Exeter’s decisive moment arrived in the 57th minute.
Another loose ball was hacked upfield by Joe Simmonds and pressure applied to the retreating Saracens cover produced a penalty for Exeter which, in turn, set up the decisive close-range lineout drive scored by the pumped-up Cowan-Dickie, the home captain for the day.
Two more Lozowski penalties narrowed the gap once again but it was Exeter who finished the game in the box seat.
“It felt like a proper Premiership game of rugby,” said Rob Baxter, their delighted director of rugby. “Both teams went hammer and tongs. I’m just proud of the guys and that little bit of fight they had in everything they did. That ultimately made the difference.”