Premiership: Five takeaways from Saracens v Exeter Chiefs as Owen Farrell sends a message to Steve Borthwick ahead of Six Nations opener

Saracens celebrate try Credit: Alamy
Saracens celebrate try Credit: Alamy

Following a 35-3 victory for Saracens over Exeter in their Premiership fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at StoneX Stadium on Saturday.

The top line

A masterclass of controlled rugby played into a howling gale and wind from Saracens saw them overcome a poor Exeter Chiefs in a very one-sided affair at the StoneX Stadium.

Tries from Andy Christie, Sean Maitland, Marco Riccioni, Alex Lewington and Nick Tompkins came with monotonous regularity as Chiefs failed to fire any form of shot in the entire 80 minutes. At the heart of the Sarries performance was a brilliant display of attritional 10 play from Owen Farrell, supported well by Ivan van Zyl and Tompkins either side of him.

However, it wasn’t all structure over flair from Farrell and his no-look behind the back pass to send Lewington over in the 72nd minute was a gem of a moment – so much so that Farrell admitted post-match he really didn’t expect anything to come of it and he was ‘giving it the advantage craic!’

Elsewhere, Italian prop Riccioni had a monumental match – showing huge power and devious technique as time and time again he slipped his opposing loosehead and got into the Exeter hooker. It might not grab the headlines, but as far as tighthead work goes, it was an outstanding shift.

Penalty counts

To go to the StoneX and concede 16 penalties to five and expect a result is somewhat fanciful – but that’s precisely what Exeter managed to do in an indisciplined affair. Their lineout, their only potent weapon in the first half, fell apart in the second and all afternoon they was absolutely beasted at the breakdown by the Men in Black.

Sure, two or three of the scrum penalties on Mako Vunipola’s side might have gone the other way and you might argue that Exeter got absolutely no return on their jackalling efforts – with one from Dan Frost and one from Solomone Kata both immediately springing to mind, but given Saracens‘ dominance in every facet you can understand the referee giving them short shrift.

But when your back-row abdicate any form of competition or clear out, then you allow your opponents the luxury of extra numbers in both attack and defence as Saracens weren’t forced to commit players to protect their own ball. Time and time again they had huge width in defence to snuff out attacks at source and when they themselves took the ball into contact, the lack of competition from Chiefs allowed ruck ball sub two seconds.

It was a harsh lesson for some of the Exeter youngsters and the likes of Christ Tshiunza and Greg Fisilau will have learned a lot about elite rugby in this game.


There’s no bigger question in English rugby right now than that of Farrell’s Test match future. However, based on today’s performance, those questions are asked and answered as he looked back to his absolute sharpest.

The debate is always a double edged one – does he play? Is he a 10 or a 12? Well, the simple truth is that the rivals for the fly-half birth, George Ford and Marcus Smith, have precisely a maximum of three games apiece before England play Scotland on February 4 at Twickenham. Smith might make match fitness, but for Ford, a player out for over six months, it would be a punchy call to ask him to step back into Test rugby. That leaves us with Farrell – and on today’s showing there’s no better 10 in England than he.

Rugby, as he said post match, is about detail – the little things, winning the micro battles, and the Saracen’s big game knowledge, effectiveness and leadership improves with every game. In short, he’s a shoo-in to start in a month or so’s time and for our money, it needs to be at 10.

Exeter work-ons

For Exeter, the list is as long as the M4. They came second in every facet of the game and most worryingly, their big England guns, the likes of Henry Slade and Jack Nowell, struggle to get into a game unless they’ve go-forward ball. Slade in particular looked sluggish and disinterested, dropping a couple of simple passes and allowing mayhem around the 13 channel, especially on the floor and he needs to up his game if he’s to be considered as an England starter.

In the set-piece, both looseheads, Scott Sio and Josh Isosefa-Scott, really failed to deal with the Saracens scrummage angles. As noted before, Riccioni was given free reign to offer only the point of his shoulder and get in hard and angled onto the hooker – it created mayhem for Chiefs and resulted in five penalties on the tighthead side.

But rugby is a game played between the ears more often than not; Exeter absolutely failed in their exit strategy and kicked only as a pressure reliever, often trying to run the ball into phase play in their own half, suicide when you’re being beaten up at ruck time. They need to do some good hard thinking about the simple pragmatism Sarries showed and try and mirror some of the territorial control and intelligent exits of the hosts.

Sarries work-ons

Saracens are a side that learn quickly and well. They took a lot of learning from a poor performance in the previous round and came back better for it. In particular, their ability to kick on their own terms, whether from Farrell, Van Zyl or Alex Goode gave them huge territorial advantage and their chasers, particularly Maitland, supported their kicking strategy.

One item of note was the way Sarries control the corners of the 22 – the 13/14 channel. On several occasions when they lost width, they’re happy to craft grubbers to keep the momentum going forward and to get their opponents turning in defence. Both Farrell and Daly hurt the Chiefs on a number of occasions in this way, with the big back-rowers piling onto the kick defender to maintain pressure.

The one item of concern might be the form of Maro Itoje – he was pickpocketed twice at lineout time and made some clumsy handling errors. He’s a sports car of a second-row but right now he looks like he needs a tune up to get things back to his sharpest, but other than that, Saracens will be well pleased in a crushing win against a team they’ve a lot of history with.

READ MORE: Premiership: Owen Farrell stars as Saracens thump Exeter while Bath and Gloucester also claim wins

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