This uniquely demanding Premiership season has seen some remarkable contests but few more extraordinary than this one. Having been a distant second for much of the game the 14-man Chiefs staged the most stunning of comebacks from 19-3 down and will now enjoy home advantage when these two sides meet again in this weekend’s semi-finals.
Early in the second half Sale had appeared to be on course for a home semi themselves thanks to tries from Byron McGuigan, AJ MacGinty, and Arron Reed. All they needed was a fourth try to secure an all-important extra bonus point, the dismissal of Sam Skinner for a high challenge on the diminutive Faf de Klerk with 25 minutes left having seemingly sunk the Chiefs without trace.
Instead it proved the catalyst for a rousing revival, tries from the outstanding Luke Cowan-Dickie and Stu Townsend and the accurate boot of Joe Simmonds hauling last season’s double champions back in front in the final quarter. The hosts duly hung on to clinch second place in the table and ensure that Saturday’s rematch will be staged back in Devon.
Sale will also have to overcome the likely absence of the influential MacGinty, who was stretchered off late in the game, and their feisty hooker Akker van der Merwe but Exeter will know they have not won the war quite yet. Prior to their late renaissance, with their other Lions forwards Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds also to the fore, they endured all kinds of problems at the breakdown and the Sharks will return to the south west feeling they still have a puncher’s chance of making their first Premiership final for 15 years.
With Bristol confirmed as regular season champions before kick off following the cancellation of their game against London Irish, however, the decision of both coaches to go full throttle with their selections ensured this was no meaningless phoney war. There was almost as much power on view as at the G7 summit down the A30 in Cornwall, with appreciably less in the way of kid-glove diplomacy. Despite the presence of three familiar ex-Chiefs in Sale’s matchday 23 in McGuigan, Sam Hill and James Phillips, it had the feel of a proper ding dong from the outset on a gorgeous summer’s day. The Sharks, having won their previous eight league matches on the spin, made their intent clear inside the opening two minutes, a smart cross-field chip from MacGinty creating good field position before the same player floated a lovely ball to McGuigan to score in the opposite corner.
The fast start further underlined the Sharks’ emergence as genuine challengers under the stewardship of Alex Sanderson, even if the early loss of Van der Merwe and flanker Cameron Neild to injury was inauspicious. It made little immediate difference, though, with MacGinty accelerating through a small midfield hole to score a second visiting try after 22 minutes.
While Exeter were looking strong at the set piece, the Curry twins were causing plenty of problems on the floor and the departure of Chiefs’ openside Jannes Kirsten with a head knock exacerbated the problem from the hosts’ perspective. When Dave Ewers was yellow-carded for a high tackle on a spinning Simon Hammersley, however, there was some local relief that the sanction was not even more punitive.
With Sale’s suffocating linespeed also denying Exeter the chance to build though the phases the half-time scoreline of 14-3 was a fair reflection of the balance of power, the hairline penalty awarded against the hosts’ maul as they drove ominously towards the Sharks line a couple of minutes before the interval deepening their frustration.
Reed’s 43rd minute score and Skinner’ dismissal, however, were to be swiftly forgotten. Back came Exeter, shrugging off their first-half torpor, and Cowan-Dickie’s close-range score changed the game’s momentum. The lively Townsend wriggled over five minutes later and, as at Northampton the previous week, Exeter finished like men possessed. Just nine minutes were left on the clock when Joe Simmonds kicked a splendid 45-metre penalty to put his team ahead for the first time in the game and leave Rob Baxter, the Chiefs’ director of rugby shaking his head. “It’s hard for me to explain really,” said Baxter. “But it shows that if we have to stand and fight we’re a bloody good side.”