Henry Slade’s delightful solo try lit up another bonus point victory for Exeter in which the Chiefs fly-half demonstrated his infuriating habit of dazzling and deflating in equal measure. Eddie Jones was in attendance, casting his eye over a raft of players who are likely to make his squad for the summer tour to Argentina and while Slade will be one of them, his tendency to blow hot and cold belies his unquestionable talent.
As it was, Slade’s dink over the top was a sucker punch for Harlequins, who had just conceded a similar try from Lachie Turner, drafted into the squad just an hour before kick-off, down the right. Up until then Harlequins had been competitive, Nick Evans keeping them in the hunt, but scores from the towering Dave Ewers – another in contention for the trip to South America – Michele Campagnaro, Slade and two for Turner ensured the Chiefs march towards the playoffs, now unbeaten in 13 league matches.
Jones will have had mixed feelings about the opening try – a cracker from Harlequins but brought about by a loose kick from Slade. Danny Care claimed it in the middle of the pitch, raced towards the right and began a move that finished on the left with Mat Luamanu going over in the corner after sharp hands from Evans, Joe Marchant and the lively Marland Yarde.
Evans missed his conversion and Slade went a little way to atoning with a penalty in front of the posts but Harlequins were in the mood to play. Tim Visser went close down the left, his chip edging into touch, while one eye-catching move featured slick offloads from the impressive Joe Marler and Kyle Sinckler. Though both may be part of Warren Gatland’s squad, named on Wednesday, it was increasingly clear why Jones had come.
That Exeter had scored try bonus points in their previous six league matches demonstrates just how clinical they are however and Slade’s burst of pace allowed James Short to dart down the left into space and while he was stopped before the try-line, Ewers powered over to put the Chiefs ahead. Slade missed the conversion but while he was struggling with the boot, there was nothing wrong with his hands.
Visser had another dash down the left but a knock-on from Mike Brown stopped Harlequins in their tracks. Evans was able to restore parity with a straightforward penalty but Campagnaro’s try just before the break put the Chiefs ahead again. Short gathered a loose high kick down the middle and streaked towards the right, fed Olly Woodburn, who in turn found the Italy centre, cutting back inside, to score – Slade this time on target with the extras before Evans added another penalty on the stroke of half-time.
If that indiscipline frustrated the Exeter head coach, Rob Baxter, he would have been furious at how Evans was able to pick off Ollie Devoto’s loose pass, roll back the years with a sprint to the corner and nose Harlequins ahead shortly after the restart.
A series of Exeter penalties ensued and while the first two were kicked to the corner, with limited success, the third was lined up at goal by Slade, who duly put the Chiefs 18-16 in front.
It should have been more when Campagnaro gathered a Care knock-on but after streaking away he failed to spot the overlap outside him and Quins were able to turn over.
Another Evans penalty ensured the lead swung back in Harlequins’ favour but then came Turner’s wonderful piece of individual skill to give the Chiefs their third of the night and a six-point advantage once the replacement Gareth Steenson had converted, before Slade, now in the centres, and Turner again, put Exeter out of reach despite Visser’s late finish on the left.
Harlequins: Brown; Yarde, Marchant (Alofa, 67), Roberts, Visser; Evans (Swiel, 69), Care (capt); Marler, Buchanan (Gray, 70), Sinckler (Collier, 61), Matthews (Merrick, 63), Horwill, Robshaw, Wallace, Luamanu.
Tries: Luamanu, Evans, Visser. Con: Swiel. Pens: Evans 3.
Exeter: Turner; Woodburn, Campagnaro (Steenson, 61), Devoto (Hill, 12), Short; Slade, Maunder (Townsend, 69); Rimmer (Moon, 50), Yeandle (capt), Holmes (Francis, 50), Dennis, Parling (Atkins, 78), Ewers, Armand, Horstmann (Hill, 57).
Tries: Ewers, Campagnaro. Turner 2, Slade. Cons: Slade, Steenson 4. Pens: Slade 2.
Attendance: 14,800. Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)