Under-strength Exeter Chiefs are outgunned by firepower of rampant Saracens forwards
Exeter Chiefs failed to be party poopers as Saracens celebrated the first Aviva Premiership match at their new Allianz Park home with an emphatic bonus-point victory.
The final scoreline could have been even more convincing, but for Sarries butchering a couple of glorious scoring chances in the first half, and some outstanding Exeter defence against a relentless onslaught after half-time when they put in more than 100 tackles.
The Chiefs were overpowered at times during the first ever league contest played on an artificial pitch, emphasised by the fact that three of Saracens' four tries went to front rowers – current England international prop Mako Vunipola and former Red Rose wearer Matt Stevens.
It is no disgrace losing away to the 2011 Premiership champions, who are unbeaten at their various homes in the league this season, but it was the manner of the defeat that will provide most cause for concern against a team missing the likes of Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell, Alex Goode, Brad Barritt and Kelly Brown – all unavailable due to RBS Six Nations Championship duty – and the injured Schalk Brits.
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Exeter's 14-12 victory over Saracens at Sandy Park in late September, when all of those stars were on show, feels a very long time ago now.
The Chiefs have only won once in their last nine matches in all competitions, with no victories in five in the Premiership – Exeter's worst run since arriving in the top flight.
Hopes of finishing the season in the top four and gaining a semi-final play-off spot are but a distant memory, and even a top-six finish and a berth in next season's Heineken Cup is now looking a tough ask.
There are plenty of reasons to explain away their disappointing spell: the quality of the opposition, particularly in the Heineken Cup, when they faced two of Europe's best teams; a poor refereeing display at Gloucester; an undeserved draw against Bath; fielding a second string line-up against the same opponents in the LV= Cup; a victory thrown away at Sale.
However, that does not make it any more palatable for those involved in the Exeter camp, and especially for those supporters who view matters as black or white.
Since the heady days of that win over Saracens, Exeter have played six gruelling Heineken Cup matches, and the impact of that cannot be underestimated.
The players have taken a physical and mental battering that would have tested the best of sides, and a number of them appear in need of a longer break than the fixture schedule, and LV= Cup windows, allow.
The injuries are also piling up, and in the same positions, forcing Baxter to send out players who in an ideal world would be resting up. A prime case in point is skipper Tommy Hayes, who was named on the replacements' bench at Saracens despite a back injury.
Exeter's back-five in the scrum alone is currently bereft of Tom Johnson, Ben White, James Phillips, Dave Ewers and James Hanks. Hayes is struggling, while Aly Muldowney limped off in north London.
Brett Sturgess, Chris Whitehead and Simon Alcott are also missing from the front row, with Sireli Naqelevuki and Gonzalo Camacho backline absentees now joined on the treatment table by Luke Arscott. You will never hear Baxter use these as excuses, as he does not work like that, but they are the cold facts.
Exeter desperately need to win at Sandy Park on Saturday against a London Welsh side fighting for their Premiership survival to restore some belief and confidence that surely must be starting to ebb away after such a run of results, otherwise it is Harlequins away and Leicester at home next up, and the Chiefs will begin to feel grateful they got so many league points on the board earlier in the season.
As against Sale, there were again positives to take out of the defeat. Among them, lock Damian Welch showed up well on his first Premiership start; young wing Jack Nowell bounced back impressively from a disappointing match against the Sharks; while skipper-for-the-day Richard Baxter worked tirelessly as ever, and was rewarded with a consolation try four minutes from time.
The first half was a tale of two normally reliable goalkickers, Saracens' Charlie Hodgson and opposite number Gareth Steenson, having bad days with the boot.
They both missed three out of four attempts at goal, and both a sitter in front of the uprights, with Steenson's coming with the last kick of the first half, which could have cut the gap to only one point.
Steenson kicked Exeter into a 24th-minute lead, while team-mate Luke Arscott was in the sin-bin, before former England fly-half Hodgson exploited a gap in the Chiefs' defence to go over for a try, which he converted, to make it 7-3 at the break.
Hodgson eventually finished with 16 points, improving all three of his front-rowers' touchdowns and slotting a penalty as Saracens secured a four-try bonus-point for only the second time in the league this season.