Exeter Chiefs 57 Saints 7: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

With the Saracens salary cap scandal unfolding, Saints supporters could have been forgiven for thinking that the days of regular sizeable domestic drubbings were over.

By Tom Vickers
Monday, 24th February 2020, 3:21 pm
Updated Monday, 24th February 2020, 5:08 pm
Exeter stopped Taqele Naiyaravoro from having a say
Exeter stopped Taqele Naiyaravoro from having a say

Year after year, the black, green and gold endured hammerings at the hands of Saracens, who so regularly racked up a half-century of points against them.

But with Mark McCall's men now guaranteed to be relegated and with little to play for other than pride, it seemed Saints would not have to endure more massive scoreline misery.

Of course, teams like Leinster could inflict big defeats on them in the Champions Cup, but who would do it in England?

Enter Exeter.

In recent times, they have started to pour as much pain on Saints as Saracens so often did.

The Chiefs have built a formidable style under Rob Baxter that shows no sign of going backwards.

Instead, they continue to stretch the gap between them and Saints, particularly at Sandy Park.

Andy Symons tried to use his physicality

Saints have now lost nine games on the spin at one of their most unhappy hunting grounds.

And many of them have not just been defeats, they have been lengthy torture exercises.

Exeter have displayed the all-court game that Saints still lack at the highest level.

The black, green and gold are one of the most stylish sides in Europe when they play to their full potential.

James Grayson scored Saints' only points

But when they come up against the cream of the crop, they have found it tough to deal with the immense physicality that is thrown in their faces.

That is understandable when you look at the players the likes of Clermont and other French teams possess.

They have a host of highly-paid men who can eat smaller figures for breakfast.

And Leinster, too, have that kind of sheer dominance in collisions and the astounding accuracy that makes life so tough.

Tom O'Flaherty was a constant menace

Saracens have also developed it, and Exeter, as shown by their impressive season in the Champions Cup, now have it, too.

Saints, though, are still lacking in that area.

Many years ago, their major strength was bullying teams, going through phase after phase before grinding the opposition down.

In fact, they used to regularly rock up to Sandy Park and turn the screw against their hosts.

The last time they won there, in February 2014, they had so many weapons up front and in the backs that they could find a way to prevail.

But they have not done that for some time now at Exeter, who so often win the physical battle against Saints in the west country.

On Sunday afternoon, after a scrappy first half an hour, Saints again found themselves up against a black wall.

They were pushed back when they tried to get any possession in the home half, and they quickly found themselves under siege in their own 22.

And when Exeter enter opposition territory, they rarely give you an easy out.

Like Saracens, Leinster and others, the just keep cranking up the heat until the opposition melt.

And they didn't have to do it for too long, with tries coming at an alarming rate after the first arrived on 32 minutes.

Saints endured a horrible eight minutes before half-time, adding to the short spells of misery they suffered against London Irish in Bristol.

In fact, at one point, across the past three games, they had shipped seven tries in the space of just 18 minutes.

And it has been damaging to their standing in the Gallagher Premiership.

However, it should not all be doom and gloom.

As Northants cricket captain Alex Wakely, a big Saints fan, tweeted after the game, top level sport is brutal and you simply don't become a bad team overnight.

Northants had whole seasons of struggle - never mind just a few games - before bouncing back the next year to win a trophy.

Just as Saints weren't the best team about when they were winning every week at the start of the season, so they are not the worst team around now they are losing.

A season is about peaks and troughs, and even Exeter have them.

They had lost at home to the likes of Sale, in the league, and Harlequins, in the cup, before Saints arrived.

Every team is capable of having a blip, especially one with as many injuries as Saints have.

Let's not forget that they lost Dylan Hartley and Heinrich Brussow, two leaders, to retirement early in the campaign.

And the laundry list of absences due to injury and international call-ups is felt more keenly than by an Exeter squad that has evolved over a number of years.

Chris Boyd has had just one and a half to formulate his squad.

And you still won't see the true fruits of his labour for some time, until he is able to choose every player who is contracted to the club.

This summer's recruitment will be key in filling gaps in the squad, particularly in the back row, which has been stretched this season with the likes of Tom Wood and Teimana Harrison constantly having to go to the well.

But here and now, the season is very much still alive, despite a sobering Sunday at Sandy Park.

Some will say Saints have no chance of winning there in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

And the bookies will most likely agree.

But with different sides set to be on show that day in April, Saints, who will be backed by more than 1,000 supporters, will still have hope.

And they still have more than that in the Premiership, sitting just a point off second despite three successive defeats.

The next two weeks are huge for them to get back on the horse.

They simply have to banish memories of their west country woe as quickly as possible.

Because if not, those humbling days against Saracens may return to add to the ones recently endured against Exeter.

How they rated...

AHSEE TUALA

Moved to full-back from the wing after Harry Mallinder was forced to withdraw due to injury and didn't have an easy day as Exeter applied plenty of pressure... 4

TOM COLLINS

Was sin-binned in a key moment late in the first half and was never really able to get into the game... 4

MATT PROCTOR

Offered a little bit of threat with ball in hand, but was unable to stop Exeter going the other way, missing six tackles... 4

ANDY SYMONS

His physicality usually catches the eye and there were a couple of strong carries but not in areas that threatened Exeter... 4

TAQELE NAIYARAVORO

Surged into Exeter's 22 on a couple of occasions during the first half but either didn't spot the support or didn't have any as his threat was snuffed out... 4

JAMES GRAYSON

Scored Saints' only points of the afternoon but Exeter put plenty of pressure on the fly-half, stopping him from getting a foothold in the game... 4

ALEX MITCHELL

Saints are understandably happy to have this young man back, but he couldn't have a say as he had little attacking possession to work with... 4

FRANCOIS VAN WYK

Tried to use his power to put Exeter on the back foot, but they made some big hits on him and tried to force penalties at the scrum... 4

JAMES FISH

The hooker was one of four players replaced at half-time after a tricky end to the first half... 4

PAUL HILL

Did his best to force Exeter back but they proved to be too strong as they isolated Saints players and won penalties from it... 4

ALEX COLES

Got through a huge amount of tackles, making 22 on the day and only missing two as he tried to stem the tide... 5

LEWIS BEAN

Showed his leadership qualities with some vocal work on the field and also pinched a lineout, but Exeter wore Saints down... 4

TOM WOOD

Made 15 tackles without missing one and cut a frustrated figure as he left the field as his hard work went to waste... 5

JJ TONKS

Was back in action after injury and this will have been a useful learning experience for the youngster, who was replaced at the break... 4

TEIMANA HARRISON

Looked to be winning the battle during the first half with some trademark hunger on show, but Exeter eventually took control and stopped the No.8 having a say... 5

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

MIKE HAYWOOD (for Fish 40)

As he did against Bristol, the hooker fronted up to some huge opponents but he and his team-mates were eventually outgunned in some style... 4.5

ALEX WALLER (for van Wyk 40)

Would have loved to lead a memorable second-half turnaround, but Exeter were too strong... 4

OWEN FRANKS (for Hill 40)

Threw his body into the game as he got through his work, but Saints were firmly on the back foot during the second half... 4.5

LEWIS LUDLAM (for Tonks 40)

Was back from England duty and was fired up after coming on at half-time, but Exeter stopped Saints from having a sniff of a second-half recovery... 5

COBUS REINACH (for Alex Mitchell 55)

Missed four of the five tackles he attempted as Exeter ran rings around Saints and the classy scrum-half couldn't have an impact... 4

FRASER DINGWALL (for Naiyaravoro 55)

Another chance to learn for the young centre, who has so much talent but who didn't have a chance to show it here... 4

CHRON STAR MAN - Sam Simmonds (Exeter)