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Exeter player ratings vs Harlequins | 2021 Gallagher Premiership final

By Liam Heagney

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A madcap belter of a Gallagher Premiership final eventually resulted in Exeter agonisingly falling short in their attempt to win a third title – and a second in a row – in what was their sixth successive final. Winners by 40-30 over Sale in last weekend’s high-scoring semi-final, Exeter came into this decider having beaten Harlequins in both regular-season games, but the pressing question was whether this class of 2021 were as good as the team that gloriously won the league and European double last year.

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Featuring an XV containing eleven of the same starters from the league final win over Wasps last October – the benched Stuart Hogg, the suspended Sam Skinner and Dave Ewers and the non-selected Olly Woodburn were the missing four – the answer was that ultimately they weren’t as clinical as the champion class of last season in an exhausting eleven-try bonanza that they narrowly lost 38-40.

The drama was immense, a lung-busting first-half giving way to even greater theatrics in a second-half where Exeter initially bounced off the canvas to turn a twelve-point deficit into a five-point lead before getting defensively stumped by a pair of supreme Louis Lynagh tries.

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Maro Itoje on what it is like playing for Saracens
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Maro Itoje on what it is like playing for Saracens

Even then Exeter still demonstrated their attacking class, scoring off the kick-off after going nine points down with just minutes to play to keep their hopes alive right until the moment Jannes Kirsten lost possession on a carry from his 22, rendering their title defence officially unsuccessful. Here are the Exeter player ratings from a remarkable contest:

15. JACK NOWELL – 6
After what he himself described as a “brutal” season due to injury, he was buried in the tackle by Scott Baldwin in a no-nonsense seventh-minute welcome to this Premiership final. Unlike last week, where he contributed two tries and excelled under the high ball, the frantic first half here was a very different type of game. Survived a heavy blow in the tackle having switched to the wing in the second half that worryingly needed treatment. He thankfully went on to make a fabulous catch at a late restart to spark the Hogg try.

14. ALEX CUTHBERT – 5
His last-ever match for the club initially featured some excellent kick chase which helped to unsettle Tyrone Green before that pressure was pierced by a no roll away penalty on 24 minutes after he clattered the Harlequins full-back. Exited on 47 minutes for Hogg with Exeter twelve points down.

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13. HENRY SLADE – 6
A headline Lions omission, he had his hand full in this breathless contest. Featured very little going forward in a first-half where his best moment was a cracking tackle on Andre Esterhuizen. Unable to repeat the dose early in the second half, the Quins midfielder grabbing a score with Slade underneath him. Ultimately needed to be on the ball more to exert a decisive influence.

12. OLLIE DEVOTO – 7
A player tipped for an England recall by Rob Baxter, he used his boot to delicious effect to tempt Lynagh into conceding the lineout that generated a first-half Exeter try and the yellow-carding of Marcus Smith. Felt he had a crucial intercept some minutes later but a penalty at the breakdown ignited the Quins pressure for the Wilco Louw try. Later scored an exuberant game-levelling try but that wasn’t enough to shut the door on Quins.

11. TOM O’FLAHERTY – 5
Had supplied the polish out wide all season and his start here was more of the same, especially when Exeter were down to 14 players for ten first-half minutes. Reached the interval having made 75 metres from five carries and a couple of clear breaks but there were also a few turnovers given up. He then endured a disappointing second period. Missed Green in the tackle that ignited the move for the Esterhuizen score and was then caught out by Lynagh’s double, especially the missed tackle for the first score.

10. JOE SIMMONDS – 6
The youthful skipper went with his boot regularly in the opening period to send up kicks to compete for, a tactic with mixed results. Led by actions after the break with his run fracturing the Harlequins defence to send in Devoto, an intervention quickly followed two turnover penalties at the ruck. Then had the composure to kick some rare penalty points with 15 minutes to go rather than chase a try. However, that didn’t head off the late Harlequins surge.

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9. JACK MAUNDER – 5
A very different, sideways-minded player compared to his opposite number Danny Care who was constantly sniping, looking to work an angle. The introduction of Stu Townsend on 53 minutes helped Exeter swing back momentum before they came unstuck again going down the finishing straight.

1. ALEX HEPBURN – 6
An eventful display that included the concession of a scrum penalty on 22 minutes for losing his bind and was followed seven minutes later by the try where he wormed his way to the line despite the attentions of Jack Kenningham. Won a scrum penalty on 47 to apply an important plaster with Exeter 26-14 down but he only played a few minutes more before giving way to Ben Moon.

2. LUKE COWAN-DICKIE – 7
Described in midweek as growling at people in the Sandy Park corridors, he had plenty more coercing to do during an exhaustive first half that asked multiple questions of his pack. Carried well in the traffic and put in his tackles. He also gave the sweet offload that set up the Devoto try that got Exeter back on terms at 26-all. Sadly, gone on 60 minutes after a knee to the side of the head when he got his head on the wrong side in a tackle.

3. HARRY WILLIAMS – 6
Another who put in his share of tackles in the tight, but his concession of a scrum penalty allowed Harlequins to mount the pressure that got the Londoners into an interval lead. Demonstrated an admirable engine, lasting around 74 minutes, but his weak point remains an allergy to ball carrying. Compare that to try-scoring Quins tighthead Louw.

4. JONNY GRAY – 7
A big evening made for him that was made even bigger with the disappointing news from Murrayfield that the Lions now require a replacement for the injured Alun Wyn Jones. A try on 18 minutes would have done his chances no harm at all and he was a crucial presence when Exeter fought back from their perilous early second-half position.

5. JONNY HILL – 6
Baxter suggested Hill took the longest of the four Exeter Lions to get his head around South African tour selection and there was bemusement here too, his concession of an offside penalty giving Harlequins their first scoring chance which resulted in a penalty try and a card for the second row. Redeemed himself with a lineout steal on Quins’ next visit but it was his offside penalty that allowed the Londoners back into it again before the break. It was that type of a problematic day for him.

6. JANNES KIRSTEN – 6
Was busy out on the backfoot trying to put manners on the Harlequins pack ball carriers in the first half and he ultimately went on to be his team’s highest tackler, checking in with 14 in a match where his fumble in the carry was the final act in an unsuccessful title defence.

7. RICHARD CAPSTICK – 5
Wiped out last weekend by Manu Tuilagi’s swinging arm, he came through the return to play protocols but had a very subdued display here and was hooked on 46 minutes for Don Armand whose aggressiveness was a game-changer.

8. SAM SIMMONDS – 7
The Lions bolter had a sniff of the line on twelve minutes with Exeter a man short but the way he was shut out was an illustration of how tough winning this final would be for the Chiefs before he got on the scoreboard on 48 minutes in typical pinball fashion near the line. Brilliant robustness minutes later when chop tackling Alex Dombrandt but his second-half star effort wasn’t enough.

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Exeter player ratings vs Harlequins | 2021 Gallagher Premiership final

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