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Returning Cowan-Dickie stars as Exeter edge Saracens

By PA
Exeter Chiefs (PA)

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Exeter won the battle of English rugby’s heavyweights by defeating fierce Gallagher Premiership rivals Saracens 18-15 at Sandy Park.

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While the eagerly-awaited contest fell below expectations in terms of its overall quality, Exeter took charge at key moments to inflict only a second Premiership defeat this season on Saracens.

Wing Tom O’Flaherty and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie scored tries for Exeter as they remained firmly in play-off contention, with fly-half Joe Simmonds kicking two penalties and a conversion.

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Centre Alex Lozowski supplied all of Saracens’ points through five penalties, but a losing bonus point was all his team collected.

The game had been billed in some quarters as a grudge match, with Saracens making a first trip to Devon since returning to English rugby’s top flight after being relegated last year and fined more than £5million for persistent salary cap breaches.

Exeter lost the 2018 and 2019 Premiership finals to Saracens at Twickenham, and they did not hold back in subsequent criticism of their fierce rivals as the full salary-cap saga unfolded.

It raised the ante for a sold-out showdown, but it was more workmanlike than spectacular throughout the 80 minutes as Exeter prevailed

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England international Cowan-Dickie returned after a seven-week injury absence for Exeter and captained the Chiefs, while Scotland lock Jonny Gray made his first appearance since undergoing shoulder surgery during the summer.

Saracens were boosted by England back Elliot Daly returning following four months out through injury – his last appearance was for the British and Irish Lions against South Africa – with Ben Earl featuring in the back row and wing Alex Lewington also starting.

The visitors struck first, going ahead after five minutes when Lozowski kicked an angled 40-metre penalty, and Saracens shaded the early sparring in terms of territory.

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Exeter, though, looked to have taken an 11th-minute lead when Sam Simmonds dived over Saracens’ line following a Joe Simmonds kick and Jack Nowell break, but it was ruled out for Henry Slade being marginally offside.

It was a let-off for Saracens, but Exeter drew level through a Simmonds penalty early in the second quarter after referee Luke Pearce marched the visitors back 20 metres when Billy Vunipola twice made his views known to the official.

A second Lozowski penalty edged Saracens back in front, yet there was no real pattern or flow to a game littered with errors and poor technical discipline.

But Exeter went ahead for the first time a minute before the break after Joe Simmonds’ pinpoint kick towards the corner flag was caught by O’Flaherty, who out-jumped Saracens scrum-half Aled Davies and touched down.

Simmonds drifted the conversion attempt narrowly wide as Exeter took an 8-6 lead into the interval.

Lozowski completed a penalty hat-trick early in the second period to nudge Saracens back in front, yet the lead proved short-lived as Exeter responded with a trademark try.

Saracens could not defend a close-range lineout, and Cowan-Dickie claimed the touchdown, with Simmonds’ conversion making it 15-9 to the home side after 57 minutes.

A second Simmonds penalty gave Saracens further cause for concern, although Lozowski gave his team renewed hope by landing two penalties in as many minutes to set up a tense finale.

But Exeter closed out the contest to claim a crucial four points and set themselves up for two weekends of action in the Heineken Champions Cup against Montpellier and Glasgow.

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