On the day Allianz Park celebrated it’s first birthday Saracens delivered the perfect present with a 23-10 over a dangerous and spirited Exeter Chiefs side.
Tries from front rowers James Johnston and Schalk Brits was enough to see off Rob Baxter’s side, whose try scorer on the day was outside centre Ian Whitten.
The game started with the Chiefs bursting out the blocks, making numerous line breaks with giant winger Fetu’u Vainikolo at the heart of most of the Chiefs’ good work.
It didn’t come as much as a surprise to the Allianz Park faithful then when Rob Baxter’s side took the lead – Chiefs outside half Gareth Steenson made the initial break, and after the ball was quickly recycled, England international back rower Tom Johnson drew the final man and releases centre Ian Whitten who crossed for the games first try after only nine minutes.
Saracens looked to be rocking and the Devonishre club really should have added to their haul after numerous line-breaks and half chances.
Saracens though would grow into the game, with returning centre Joel Tomkins leading the charge. First the former Wigan man made an outside break to take his team into the Chiefs 22, but lamentably had no support. Moments later he released Chris Wyles (who impressed throughout) down the left hand flank, only for the US Eagle to be expertly tackled by Chiefs half-back Dave Lewis with the line beckoning.
As a contest the game certainly wasn’t disappointing as both teams looked to play from deep. Ben Ransom and Chris Wyles in particular returned any Chiefs clearance with interest, with young full-back Ransom impressing with a series of elusive runs and clever kicks.
As the first half wore on, a series of well judged kicks out of hand from Charlie Hodgson repeatedly put his side in strong positions only for Saracens ‘ final pass to let them down.
Saracens persistence would eventually pay off and after his impressive work in the set-piece to earn his side a penalty deep in the Chiefs half, tighthead prop James Johnston would cross for his sides first try of the game, and his first Premiership try for his new club. The Samoan powerhouse received the ball from Richard Wigglesworth, and aided by Mouritz Botha, he barreled his way over to score. Hodgson converted to tie the scores just on the 35th minute mark.
That was it for a pulsating first forty minutes from the two sides as Saracens and the Chiefs disappeared into the depths of the West Stand unable to be separated.
With the second half underway, and the Chiefs replicated their first half start by registering the first points of the second stanza, with Gareth Steenson sending over a penalty after the Saracens scrum was put under pressure.
The response from Saracens though was as impressive as it was swift. With the Chiefs testing coach Rob Baxter’s blood pressure with a mix-up immediately from the restart. Saracens elected to kick the ball into touch from the resulting penalty and from the lineout hooker Schalk Brits found George Kruis, and the rolling maul was set.
As the Saracens eight marmalised their opponents, South African Brits attached himself on the ball to score his sides second of the afternoon – Hodgson converted to give his side a four point lead.
After edging ahead captain Steve Bothwick replaced Mouritz Botha (who needed attention for a head injury), with Neil de Kock and Jacques Burger coming on for Richard Wigglesworth and Kelly Brown respectively just as Charlie Hodgson added two quick fire penalties to edge Saracens into a ten point lead.
Saracens could ill-afford to rest on their defensive laurels as the Chiefs through wingers Jess, Vainikolo and half-back Lewis threatened the Saracens defensive line on numerous occasions, but with the home side enjoying the lions share of referee Wayne Barnes’ sympathy at the set-piece they remained in the ascendent.
Referee Barnes sympathy was not on show when he collided with Saracens hooker Schalk Brits, with the Springbok international coming off second best to wiry official to the amusement of the Saracens crowd, nor was it when he yellow carded replacement Jacques Burger for a high tackle.
But that was that for Saracens, and as the Chiefs resisitence petered out Hodgson added another penalty as Saracens defeated the Chiefs 23-10 in an entertaining contest.