A last-minute try by the replacement No8 Sam Simmonds took Exeter to a second successive Premiership final and left Saracens’ tilt at a double double beached at Sandy Park.
Saracens, who had appeared in the three previous finals, looked to have plundered victory five minutes from time with Mike Ellery’s try, but Exeter had ended the regular season by going 15 matches unbeaten and when they were awarded a penalty in their own half 80 seconds from time, Henry Slade kicked it into touch seven metres from the Saracens line and a driving maul three backs joined in ended with Simmonds crashing jubilantly over.
The result will not have upset the Lions who will have their six Saracens players joining them in Dublin this week, although the Vunipola brothers both needed treatment during a physically gruelling match.
Saracens, as they had against Clermont in the Champions Cup final, dominated the opening 20 minutes but they were restricted to two Owen Farrell penalties and found space at a premium. Jack Nowell foiled their one try-scoring opportunity when having made a tackle, the Lions wing anticipated Farrell’s chip to the line and beat Chris Wyles to the bounce.
Saracens lost Michael Rhodes and Chris Ashton to injury in the first 10 minutes, but used the breeze to play for territory. They retained possession so effectively that the Chiefs struggled to break out, but the game turned after 21 minutes when the visitors had a penalty under the posts that would have extended their lead to nine points.
Richard Wigglesworth took the penalty quickly but when Schalk Burger’s pass went over Mako Vunipola’s head, Saracens found themselves scrambling.
Farrell’s pass went to ground and was picked up by James Short who made it to within 20 metres of the champions’ line before being tackled by Farrell.
The momentum shifted and Saracens had to dig in. Exeter kicked a third penalty to touch to drive a maul rather than bank three points, but when Ollie Devoto was held up over the line and Saracens infringed again, Gareth Steenson kicked the Chiefs on to the scoreboard and drew them level on 30 minutes after Billy Vunipola infringed at a ruck.
Saracens were hanging on, going into the interval level at 6-6 thanks to Wigglesworth’s try-saving tackle on Nowell and Billy Vunipola’s challenge on Thomas Waldrom a metre out which earned his side a penalty. Exeter were retaining possession and took the lead two minutes after the restart when Phil Dollman’s break saw Nowell pick up and score from a ruck.
Saracens had attempted more than twice as many tackles as Exeter, missing 20% of them, and there were signs that the exertions of the previous week were catching up with them. They are, though, never more dangerous than when about to be snared and, after Farrell had missed a kick to touch with a penalty, responded with a Chris Wyles try after a Billy Vunipola rampage.
Farrell missed the conversion from the left-hand touchline, but Saracens recovered their poise, if not precision. Schalk Brits had replaced Jamie George and his overhead pass gave Ellery the space to make the line and leap above Slade’s tackle.
It looked to have taken the champions through, but they conceded a penalty at a scrum for them fifth time in the match and Slade gave his forwards one more maul.