With Exeter hosting the Devon county show and the European champions on the same day, this was always going to be a rare weekend in the west. There was probably a similar amount of prime beef on display at both venues and, rugby-wise, the winning rosette ended up pinned on the most popular of local rumps. The Chiefs are going back to Twickenham and this may yet prove the most significant 80 minutes in their history.
The reason? Exeter did not just beat any old visitors on any occasion: they defeated the best team on the continent, complete with multiple British & Irish Lions and at the peak of their powers, when it absolutely mattered. As recently as seven years ago the Chiefs were still a Championship team, seen as country mice up against the big city slickers. Not any more: the Tomahawk Chop echoes across the land and there is insufficient cider in the vat to satisfy insatiable local demand.
More than two years have passed since Saracens lost a big knockout game but, despite the last-gasp nature of Sam Simmonds’ winning try, they could have few complaints as their “double double” disappeared west. The domestic season is achingly long but it really did feel as if everything Exeter had been working on for nine months had been distilled into one breezy May afternoon. Never mind the beast of Bodmin; these days the scariest thing in the west country is the Chiefs pack when it has half a sniff close to the line.
One could probably have heard the roar on the furthest bit of Dartmoor when, with 26 seconds of normal time left, Simmons completed the ultimate in proper jobs. Of course the Principality Stadiums and Stade de Frances of this world can hold more people but, on days like this, the Sandy Park experience rates with any. Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ian Whitten, Phil Dollman, Ben Moon …none is going on a Lions tour this summer but they are household names here. Young Simmonds, a Teignmouth lad potentially destined for great things once his stocky power and pace are more widely recognised, is merely the latest shining light.
Then there was Henry Slade’s crucial 60-metre touchfinder, destined to go down alongside Arthur Wellard’s six-hitting and Yeovil’s sloping pitch in West Country sporting lore. Saracens’ Mark McCall reckoned it was one of the best ever struck given the circumstances; it should also be mentioned, in passing, that McCall’s gracious response to his side’s defeat belongs alongside the many impressive things his club have achieved in recent times.
It was always going to be tough for Saracens to get back up from their huge collision with Clermont Auvergne in Edinburgh the week before. Even for such a resilient modern force there is only so much biofuel in the tank, only so much punishment the body can take. The Chiefs had an extra week to prepare for this thunderous ambush and, for all the visitors’ monumental efforts, it probably made the difference at the end. McCall conceded his side were almost out on their feet at half-time and did remarkably well to rally in the way they did.
Losing Chris Ashton and Michael Rhodes to injuries inside the first quarter also created further unease; having a strong bench is rather less advantageous if the finishers are required from the start. It was to Sarries’ enormous credit that they were somehow still ahead entering the final moments; even when their flesh is weaker, their spirit and defensive organisation are something else. The watching Francois Pienaar, the South Africa World Cup-winning captain who used to skipper Saracens, will have recognised the kind of never-say-die qualities his old Springbok side used to contain.
The Chiefs, though, were totally up for this one, too. The crowd were right in on the act as well: according to the Chiefs’ big boss, Tony Rowe, the club could have sold their ground out two or three times over. They will be up for Twickenham, too, determined to show they are a better side than they were 12 months ago. As the captain, Gareth Steenson, said: “There’s no point having a final now and not winning it.”
It will be another monumental weekend for the region, with Exeter City also due to feature in a League Two play-off final at Wembley on Sunday. There will be another mass procession up the M5 and the A303 but this time the Tribe will be travelling with slightly more expectation. As they proved once again here, no challenge is too big for the Chiefs these days.