Exeter book final spot against Harlequins with thrilling play-off win over Sale
Champions Exeter reached their sixth successive Gallagher Premiership final and will play Harlequins at Twickenham after beating Sale 40-30 in an absorbing play-off.
The Chiefs struck with early tries by hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and wing Tom O’Flaherty after Sale’s England centre Manu Tuilagi was sin-binned for a swinging arm hit into Exeter flanker Richard Capstick’s jaw.
Capstick went off for a head injury assessment and did not return, but Chiefs maintained the upper hand and booked another final appearance through full-back Jack Nowell’s two touchdowns on his comeback after six weeks out injured and an Alex Cuthbert score, plus three conversions and three penalties from skipper Joe Simmonds.
Sale, striving to reach a first Twickenham showpiece since 2006, had their moments at Sandy Park, notably centre Rohan Janse Van Rensburg’s try double, while fly-half Robert Du Preez kicked 13 points, before number eight Dan Du Preez scored a late try that Kieran Wilkinson converted.
But Exeter march on, chasing a third Premiership title in five seasons, and they will start as favourites next Saturday despite Quins’ stunning extra-time victory over Bristol.
Suspended Exeter forwards Sam Skinner and Dave Ewers were replaced by Jonny Gray and Capstick, respectively, while Nowell was preferred to Scotland captain Stuart Hogg for his first game since early May.
Injuries sidelined Sale trio AJ MacGinty, Akker Van Der Merwe and Cameron Neild, so Du Preez took over from MacGinty, with hooker Curtis Langdon in for Van Der Merwe and Ben Curry joining his twin brother Tom in the back row.
Exeter flew out of the blocks and were ahead after five minutes, striking immediately after Tuilagi was yellow-carded.
The Chiefs forwards laid siege to Sale’s line, and Cowan-Dickie claimed the touchdown, with Simmonds’ conversion making it 7-0.
Don Armand replaced Capstick, and Sale, having pushed Exeter to the limit in last weekend’s regular-season encounter, soon fell further behind.
This time, a crunching Ollie Devoto tackle saw Sale spill possession inside their own half, and his midfield partner Henry Slade gathered before sending an unmarked O’Flaherty over.
Simmonds could not convert from the touchline, and although Du Preez then opened Sale’s account through a long-range penalty, Exeter maintained territorial dominance.
Simmonds booted a penalty that opened up a 12-point advantage, but Sale responded from the restart as wing Arron Reed beat Slade to the catch and found Van Rensburg, who finished strongly under pressure.
Van Rensburg, a late inclusion in the Sale side instead of Sam James, took his try superbly, and Du Preez’s conversion gave Exeter food for thought.
The Chiefs, though, responded by scoring a third try, and it was Nowell who claimed it, taking a quick penalty that caught Sale’s defence napping and touching down before Sharks tacklers could respond.
Simmonds added extras, and although Du Preez landed a second penalty, Exeter were good value for a 22-13 interval lead.
A Simmonds penalty increased the gap, yet Sale fortuitously hit back when Van Rensburg capitalised on Du Preez’s clever kick to score, but the officials missed what appeared to be a forward pass by Tuilagi earlier in the move.
Du Preez converted, yet Exeter soon regained the ascendancy, with Simmonds’ kick bisecting the Sale defence and Nowell claiming his second try.
Another Du Preez penalty made it a nine-point game entering the final quarter, but Wales international Cuthbert finished off a spell of relentless pressure 13 minutes from time.
Sale would still not go quietly, though, and Dan Du Preez’s 71st-minute touchdown set up an intense closing period that saw Exeter ultimately prevail as Simmonds sent over a 40-metre penalty and booked a Twickenham ticket once again.
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