Another brutally physical game between two sides with a bit of history may yet complicate Eddie Jones’s short-term plans for England. Neither Owen Farrell nor Luke Cowan-Dickie, both earmarked as certain Test starters this autumn, was able to last the distance and it may be that Jones will have to draw up fresh contingency plans for his team’s busy November schedule.
Farrell caught a knee to the head trying to tackle Exeter’s Joe Simmonds and the Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, is awaiting medical reports, which he suspects will force his fly-half to serve a mandatory 12-day stand down period.
Exeter confirmed that Cowan-Dickie had been unable to reappear for the second half and his knee injury will now need assessing. With Jamie George already sidelined with a broken foot, England may now have to proceed without two Lions hookers against Argentina at Twickenham on 6 November.
If Farrell’s departure was a concern for club and country, though, Saracens had another matchwinner lurking on the bench. Alex Goode was making a record-equalling 338th appearance for the side and he will remember the occasion with fondness after slotting the game-defining penalty with the last kick of a match Exeter had dared to think was already in the bag.
The home side had staged a stirring grandstand finish and appeared to have snatched victory via Jacques Vermeulen’s 71st-minute try and two nerveless left-foot kicks from Henry Slade, the second of them putting his side 20-19 ahead with a couple of minutes left.
Exeter also dealt capably with the kick-off but a subsequent little knock-on offered Saracens one last scrum with the clock ticking towards the red. Down it went and the nerveless Goode did the rest from about 35 metres.
“It was his first kick of the season,” said McCall. “It tells a lot about Alex that he was prepared to take the responsibility on his shoulders.”
It was an eventful day all round, with Farrell having been shown a sixth-minute yellow card for a deliberate trip on Jack Nowell. Jones spoke this week about Farrell not being given enough respect and there was not a huge amount of it on show as the home fans gleefully waved him away to the sin-bin.
In the final analysis, though, Exeter were made to pay for not building a bigger first-half score. Their initial plan to target Sarries around the fringes and sap their strength with a succession of hard-nosed carries worked a treat but their set-piece started to creak in the final quarter and Sarries’ defence was excellent at key moments.
The visitors scored the first try, slick approach work working the multi-skilled Theo McFarland through a gap to gallop over.
Exeter, for all the excellence of their wingers, Olly Woodburn and Nowell, in the air, had only a Slade penalty to show for their efforts until a concerted driven maul was dragged down just short of the Sarries line by Mako Vunipola. The referee, Tom Foley, duly showed the prop a yellow card before also awarding a penalty try because the forward part of the multi-studded human centipede had already reached the tryline.
An Elliot Daly penalty tied the scores on a blustery, cloudy afternoon and Exeter, once again, could not quite make the most of their extra man advantage. Instead, with Vunipola back, it was Saracens who scored next. Slade did well to halt a charging Maro Itoje but Harvey Skinner was sent to the bin at the ensuing ruck for handling on the floor and Farrell chipped over the penalty.
The fly-half was soon on target again as Exeter endured further difficulties at the breakdown and the sight of a clearly disgruntled Stuart Hogg, deprived of the Scotland captaincy this week, gesticulating at the coaching box after being replaced was another sign of home frustration.
Further penalties from Farrell and Daly made it 19-10 to the visitors in the final quarter but the most compelling drama was still to come.
“Whether we deserved it or not I’m not sure but we fought right to the end,” said McCall. “I thought it was a brilliant game in its own way, with two really good sides scrapping it out.”