Champion Chiefs start defence of title with impressive victory
In the build-up to Friday’s Premiership opener against Harlequins, Exeter’s director of rugby Rob Baxter was in bullish mood, determined that their domestic and European double wouldn’t be a one off.
“When you achieve something, your goals can’t go backwards and for us now, that’s very much the way I feel. “Our goals can’t go backwards,” he said prior to the Premiership season getting underway just 27 days after the previous campaign finished.
Any doubts that Exeter, after reaching their Everest last term, may go into reverse, were firmly laid to rest at the Stoop as Baxter’s men eased past Harlequins 33-3.
The final score line will signal that perhaps normal service was resumed for Exeter on a filthy West London evening, although three tries in the final nine minutes finally broke stoic home resistance.
Quins would rue their ill discipline after they shipped 16 penalties overall, while the Chiefs were on the wrong end of merry-whistle-blower Christophe Ridley’s shrill blast just seven times.
However, the first points of the evening did go to the home side when Marcus Smith slotted over a routine penalty after Sam Simmonds had infringed. Prior to that, Smith had also spurned another three-point opportunity from the tee after Ridley penalised visiting prop Alec Hepburn. With the conditions very much making this a forwards game, both teams slugged it out up front until just after the 20-minute mark when Sam Simmonds took centre stage and demonstrated what everyone else can see, but England coach Eddie Jones perhaps can’t.
Running a perfect line from centre field off a pass from his brother Joe, the Exeter loose forward galloped clear through the home defence and showing pace more akin to an outside back, skinned Quins winger Nathan Earle to touch down out wide. The celebration was telling too as Sam Simmonds rose from the turf with arms aloft looking straight at the television camera. Although the 26-year-old, who hasn’t played for England since 2018, would have played down the significance of the honouring his first try garnered, it was obvious who the reaction was aimed at.
Joe Simmonds knocked over the conversion with aplomb and at 7-3, Exeter had stolen the march on Quins and it was a lead they would hold after 40 minutes of an absorbing half.
After the turnaround, Exeter extended their lead further in familiar fashion when a rolling maul forward finished with Dave Ewers touching down – another player, like Sam Simmonds, who must wonder what he has to do in order to win Jones’ seal of international approval.
If Exeter thought Harlequins would simply roll over at this point, the next passages of play saw the home side mount a stirring comeback and but for the intervention of Ridley, they would have opened their account.
Luke Northmore crashed over the line but as home celebrations were dissipating, the score was chalked off as Alex Dombrandt was ruled to have impeded the Chiefs’ defensive line.
It was a let off for Exeter that swung the pendulum in their favour and after several promising positions weren’t capitalised on, the visitors put the game to bed in its closing stages.
Two virtual carbon-copy scores from Sam Simmonds, which saw the forward duly complete his hat-trick, secured victory. In the dying embers, replacement scrumhalf Stuart Townsend, back in the fold after recovering from an elbow injury, put the gloss on a fine Exeter showing with a snipe from close range after Luke Cowan-Dickie, another Chief back from injury, had gone close.
Harlequins: Brown, Earle, Northmore, Esterhuizen, Murley, Smith, Care; Botta, Baldwin, Louw, Symons, Lewies, Lawday, Evans, Dombrandt. Replacements: Musk, Els, Kerrod, Young, White, Stafford, Tapuai, Green.
Exeter Chiefs: Cordero, O’Flaherty, Whitten, Devoto, Woodburn, J Simmonds, Maunder; Hepburn, Yeandle, Williams, Witty, Armand, Ewers, Kirsten, Simmonds. Replacements: Cowan-Dickie, Moon, Street, Price, Capstick, Townsend, Skinner, Hendrickson