Tom Whiteley scored a hat-trick as Saracens Storm secured a home semi-final in the Premiership Rugby Shield with a 51-26 victory over Exeter Braves at Sandy Park.
The scrum-half and prop Ralph Adams-Hale got Storm off to a perfect start but they were pegged back by two Elvis Taione efforts.
Max Malins’ solo try was cancelled out when Onehunga Kafusi buried home and Harry Skinner converted to ensure Braves led at the interval.
Whiteley went over for his second on 42 minutes then Tom Woolstencroft and Sione Vailanu scored to put breathing space between the two sides.
Then a scintillating move form defence to attack saw Whiteley collect a deserved third to send Storm home happy victors despite Ian Whitten’s try.
The weather reflected Storm’s start: bright and cheerful. Dom Morris was lively early on displaying electric pace to break on the outside and the handling from all was swift and precise.
That positivity was rewarded on seven minutes. Matt Gallagher burst through a gap and released Whiteley on an open trot to the line, much like Malins had done for the nine in the Gallagher Premiership the previous weekend.
With the restart claimed and a penalty won at the breakdown, a monster penalty sent Sarries to the five and from there they extended their advantage to 12; Adams-Hale the beneficiary of a compact driving maul.
Braves responded in kind moments later as Taione flopped over and they went ahead for the first time when Skinner converted the hooker’s second score.
Their lead lasted all-but a minute. Malins collected his speculative chip over the top to race in and added the extras to make it 19-14 to the away side.
The match continued to be topsy turvy and Kaufusi punched a hole in the Storm defence to make it three-apiece on the try count with Skinner’s tee-shot edging the hosts back in front at half-time.
Storm came out the blocks in the second period similarly to the first and Whiteley grabbed an all-important bonus point try, sniping and breaking two tackles before crossing.
As is expected with any Exeter team, they upped their physicality and superb defence from Jon Kpoku and Nick Isiekwe prevented an outside break by Sam Hill.
As a result of keeping the Devon outfit at bay, Storm marched downfield and scored their fifth of the contest. Woolstencroft showed his brute strength to barge his way over.
A yellow card awarded to Tom Hendrickson followed as Adam Powell’s side began to take control and this time Vailanu was on hand to make the one-man advantage count.
Malins’ kick made it 38-21 and an excellent passage of play sealed a home semi-final for the north Londoners.
Gallagher’s textbook cover tackle on James Short forced the wing to fumble. Malins scooped up and set Morris free who in turn put Whiteley over for his third.
Whitten dived in for a consolation but the damage had already done by a ferocious Storm and Malins’ two late penalties put extra gloss on the scoreline.