|Gallagher Premiership final|
|Exeter Chiefs (22) 34|
|Tries: White, Ewers, J Hill, Slade, S Hill Cons: J Simmonds 3 Pen: J Simmonds|
|Saracens (16) 37|
|Tries: George 2, Spencer, L Williams, Maitland Cons: Farrell 3 Pens: Farrell 2|
European champions Saracens overturned an 11-point deficit to beat Exeter in a superb Premiership final at Twickenham.
Nic White put Exeter ahead after just 27 seconds, but Jamie George and Ben Spencer crossed for Sarries before Dave Ewers restored Exeter’s lead.
Jonny Hill’s try stretched Chiefs’ lead to 22-16 at the break.
Henry Slade put Exeter 27-16 up, but tries by Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and George saw Sarries retain their title and win a fourth in five years.
Sam Hill’s last-second try was a mere consolation for Exeter, who have lost all three of their final appearances against Saracens.
No side had ever overturned a deficit of more than six points in a Premiership final before, but Saracens’ comeback ensured the record that Northampton set when they beat Mark McCall’s side in 2014 is consigned to history.
Sarries have now won five of the last nine Premiership crowns and complete a second double in four seasons following their victory over Leinster in the European Champions Cup final last month.
It is a second defeat in a row for Exeter by Sarries in the final and their victory over Wasps in 2017 remains their only title.
Incredible first quarter
In a pulsating opening 10 minutes in sweltering conditions, White gave Exeter the perfect start, darting in from a metre out for the fastest try in a Premiership final.
It came following an unusual mistake from England back row George Kruis who dropped the ball straight from kick-off allowing Alex Cuthbert to steal it and set up White.
But Saracens came back straight away – a lovely passing move on the left saw Slade deliberately knock the ball on and from the line-out that followed George was forced over by a powerful driving maul.
With Slade in the sin-bin, Owen Farrell put Sarries ahead with a penalty and Exeter’s 14 men could not hold out as battering runs from Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Vincent Koch softened up the Chiefs for Spencer to go in from close range.
Once they were back up to 15, Chiefs carried on where they had left off, a great run by Ollie Devoto allowing Exeter to encamp on Saracens’ line with Itoje being sent to the bin after a number of infringements.
Ewers went over from close range to put Exeter ahead once more having seen his team-mates held up twice over the Sarries line. It was 14-13 to Chiefs after just 21 minutes.
Exeter far from one dimensional
In the run up to the game, some observers had criticised Exeter’s style of play – multiple phases of forward play that ground down their opponents before battering the ball over from close range.
But Tom O’Flaherty, Jack Nowell and Joe Simmonds all showed that Exeter’s backs are as dangerous a weapon from distance as their forwards are from nearer their opponents’ line.
Following a number of excellent moves, one of Exeter’s fast-flowing plays from the back led to the field position for Chiefs’ third try as Hill went over on the line.
Farrell’s second penalty narrowed the gap to three points, and as Exeter were held up over the line in the final minute won a penalty which Simmonds kicked from in front of the posts as the Chiefs led by six points at the interval.
Record breaking comeback
A cagier second half saw Saracens have more of the ball, but early on Exeter’s defence more than matched their opponents and forced turnovers at key times.
Alex Lozowski’s timely touchdown stopped Cuthbert from getting Exeter’s fourth try when his Welsh compatriot Tomas Francis kicked the ball forward after Alex Goode’s clearance was charged down.
It looked as though Saracens were running out of ideas when Slade got the fourth try – his excellent pass set up Sam Skinner who bulldozed down the right wing before feeding the England centre to go over in the corner. The lead was 11 points with just over 20 minutes to go.
But straight from the restart Saracens punished Exeter and deep in Chiefs territory Farrell’s cross kick from left flank to right was plucked out of the air by Williams as the gap was whittled down to four points instantly.
Saracens went ahead again as Richard Wigglesworth’s clever run from the back of a ruck saw the former England scrum-half gallop into space and set up the overlap which allowed Maitland to dive over.
Exeter’s hopes were dealt a further blow as England and British Lions back Nowell hobbled off with an ankle injury 10 minutes before the end.
They were extinguished when Farrell’s superb kick to the corner allowed Itoje the chance to steal the ball from the line-out and set up George for his second try of the game.
Hill’s try made the score respectable, but Saracens’ dominance in the key final part of the second half ensured they came away with more silverware.
The best English side ever?
A second European and domestic double elevates this Saracens side into the pantheon of of great English club sides.
They become just the second club to win the double twice in their history after Leicester, who won back-to-back English and European titles in 2001 and 2002.
But this season Saracens also made the Premiership Cup final, which they lost to Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, while their second string won the A League title.
They have now won five titles since their first domestic crown in 2011, including four of the last five and only a last-second try by Exeter in the 2017 semi-final stopped them from making five-straight finals.
With Farrell, the Vunipola brothers, Williams, Maitland, George and Goode they have some of the best British players of their generation in their side.
“Although it’s probably the worst we’ve played in a final, it’s our seventh consecutive win in a final which is an incredible achievement from this group of players,” Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said.
“It makes me feel lucky to be part of the club that we’re part off we all feel fortunate to be here.
“We’re on an incredible journey at the moment and fingers crossed we can make it continue a bit longer.”
While McCall would not be drawn whether this Saracens side is the best ever, Exeter boss Rob Baxter was more direct.
“They probably are. Their record speaks for itself,” he said.
“They’re winning Premierships, they’re winning European cups, but it feels to me like we’re probably disappointed that we haven’t beaten them today, so that bodes well for where Exeter Chiefs stand as well.”
‘A fantastic game’
In Exeter’s two previous final defeats to Saracens they had been blown away at half-time.
But this much closer affair gives director of rugby Baxter hope that his side can challenge both domestically and in Europe next season.
“In many ways it was a fanatic game of rugby, the one thing we’ll regret is we just didn’t seize those moments of control,” he said.
“I can stand here and give you all my thoughts on the game, but there is a reality that we’ve stepped forward considerably form the final last year.
“What I’ve got to do now with this group of players is kind of convince them that if they keep working hard in the right direction that if you can take the comfortable European champions that close then obviously there’s got to be more in Europe for us.
“When you’re finalists three years and lose and you’ve won it once you can’t talk any other way than we’re going to try and win it next year and we’ve got to find a way of powering our way through our European group.
“Those things feel closer to me now, ironically, despite the fact that we’ve lost. They feel closer to me than they did last year because there was nothing in that game that made me think we weren’t able to go toe to toe with Saracens.”
Exeter Chiefs: Nowell; Cuthbert, Slade, Devoto, O’Flaherty; J. Simmonds, White; Moon, Yeandle (capt), Williams, Dennis, Hill, Ewers, Armand, Kvesic.
Replacements: Cowan-Dickie, Hepburn, Francis, Skinner, S. Simmonds, Maunder, Steenson, Hill.
Saracens: Goode; Williams, Lozowski, Barritt (capt), Maitland; Farrell, Spencer; Barrington, George, Koch, Skelton, Kruis, Itoje, Wray, B. Vunipola.
Replacements: Woolstencroft, Adams-Hale, Judge, Isiekwe, Rhodes, Wigglesworth, Tompkins, Strettle.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU).
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