Source: Exeter Chiefs

Exeter Chiefs v Saracens

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Never before have I seen two head coaches so wracked with anguish. The tension was pretty unbearable for the neutrals – any of them present, apart from the media? – for Susie Appleby and Alex Austerberry it seemed like a choice between heaven and hell.

In the time-honoured phrase, there was little love lost between the two sides. Sarries had never lost a semi; Chiefs had never lost to the Londoners at home. Something had to give.

There were enough errors early on to show even the most experienced of players were feeling the heat (and the heat of battle was extended by a temperature approaching 30 degrees). Right at the start Holly Aitchison had a clearance kick charged down – not for the first time in her career – but fortunately for her Chiefs knocked on.

Exeter had the edge in early scrums, through Sarries sorted that out later. Both sides were prepared to take risks: a brave response to the challenges of sudden-death. That approach only added to the excitement.

It took Sarries thirteen minutes to visit Chiefs’ 22 for the first time. An Aitchison cross-kick brought a determined assault on the try-line; Leanne Infante was very inventive, often dummying to test out the fringe defences. Sarries thought they were over but Charlie Gayther decreed ‘holding on’.

Chiefs were ecstatic at winning a scrum penalty, but moments later an Aitchison penalty kick brought the visitors close to the line. From there they mounted another series of pounding attacks; this time Hannah Botterman wasn’t to be denied. (0-7)

Over the next period Chiefs had to defend like mad; they found it hard exiting their own half.

A drop-out from their own line spelled danger. Jess Breach started the counter, Lotte Clapp slipped through and delivered a scoring pass to Sarah McKenna. A lovely move.

Half-time: 0-14, the same score as the previous day’s semi, only here the visitors were on top.

The second half had problems fitting all its drama into a mere 40 minutes. Exeter came roaring out of the blocks, just as Bristol Bears had done in Gloucestershire. In the first minute Katie Buchanan made a long break. The good work continued for Kate Zackary to prove her value to the club once more with a muscular fend and touch-down. (7-14)

When offered a penalty in front, Poppy Leitch wisely opted for a kick at goal and Liv McGoverne did the job. (10-14)

On 49 minutes came a yellow for Aitchison for a deliberate knock-on. I dilate on that further down. For Sarries things grew infinitely worse when Marlie Packer suffered the same fate barely a minute later.

As she walked off, did the home crowd roar ‘Chieeeefs! or another word beginning with ‘Che’? The former, I trust.

What followed was inevitable. Hope Rogers, who till then had had a quiet game, scored to put Chiefs ahead for the first time (17-14). Sarries worked very hard while reduced to the size of a Rugby league team. Indeed, on one occasion Chiefs failed to get the ball down the line to the right wing, despite the 2-player advantage.

By the time Sarries returned to full strength, they were only those three points down. They began stringing their well-practised moves together again. Poppy Cleall showed her range of talent by suddenly hoofing the ball right down to the try-line. What vision!

Sarries now put together the longest set of phases of the entire game. Chiefs defended with grit and determination, but after several blasts at the line, the ball spun back to Aitchison who measured an exquisite kick-pass to Clapp on the left. The TMO checked for off-side, but you weren’t going to catch an experienced operator like her out. (17-21)

In the normal way of things, you would have expected Sarries to seal the game up there and then. They didn’t. Little was normal at Sandy Park. Indeed, Gayther showed his yellow card for a third time to dismiss Evans.

Exeter had a 5-metre line-out on offer, but the throw was wonky. No matter; they now mounted serious attacks on the line, and with one minute on the clock their lead was restored. Eilidh Sinclair’s face was a picture as the line opened up before her.

Time for delirium and disbelief in equal measure.

Result: Exeter Chiefs 24 Saracens 21


Exeter Chiefs
15 Doidge 14 Buchanan 13 Zackary 12 Cantorna 11 Sinclair 10 McGoverne 9 F. Robinson 1 Rogers 2 Tuttosi 3 Menin 4 Fryday 5 Leitch (captain) 6 Fleming 7 Allen 8 Johnson
Bench: 16 Moloney 17 Turani 18 Jacoby 19 van der Velden 20 Jefferies 21 M Macdonald 22 Wilkins 23 Cramer

15 Breach 14 Grant 13 Gregson 12 McKenna 11 Clapp (co-captain) 10 Aitchison 9 Infante 1 Botterman 2 Campbell 3 Clifford 4 McMillan 5 P. Cleall 6 Evans 7 Kasolo 8 M. Packer (co-captain)
Bench: 16 Rettie 17 Carson 18 Ellis 19 McIntosh 20 Moore 21 Wyrwas 22 F. Williams 23 Alejandro


Referee: Charlie Gayther
ARs: Jonathan Cook and James Cornell
TMO: David Rose
NB a TMO was in operation here, and he had plenty of work to do.


Over 4,000 spectators were present. From a publicity point of view, it was a pity they were all housed in the main stand, leaving the cameras to stare at an empty east stand.

Once more I raise the issue of the ‘deliberate’ knock-on. It had a profound effect on this game, as it has done all too often this season. Gayther sent three Sarries players to the bin; only one of them was for an unnecessary extra roll on the ground – but it wasn’t till the 78th minute that Georgia Evans disappeared. When Aitchison and Packer both committed the same infringement (an attempted interception), we were treated for the umpteenth time to a game of 15 v 13. Again I ask: how long does a player have to decide whether she can intercept a pass accurately or not? How many players have we seen deliberately withdrawing a hand because they know they cannot take the ball cleanly? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero. The non-offending side can be offered all sorts of recompenses without the need to dismiss a player from the field.

Chiefs fielded five England-qualified players in their starting 15, three backs and two forwards. I’m not sure how that benefits English rugby, but the 10-year schedule looks forward to welcoming more ‘world stars’ to the league to boost its attractiveness, so that’s all right.

In case you’d like to see the French version of an elite final, take a look at the 8-minutes long offering on

Stade Bordelais (in white tops) at home versus Blagnac. It’s another close-run affair.