With Exeter Chiefs sitting pretty in second place in the Aviva Premiership, they kept the pressure on leaders Saracens with a 33-17 win over Sale Sharks on Boxing Day.
Despite returning back to earth with a bump after an away loss to French superstars Clermont Auvergne, the Chiefs returned to domestic action full of confidence.
Sandy Park has been a true fortress for the Chiefs in 2015, with the Devon side only losing once this year back in January to Gloucester. This home advantage proved key today, with a ferocious wind keeping Sale stuck in their own half in the last thirty minutes.
Despite Exeter dominating possession the Sharks drew first blood. With the wind behind him England hopeful Danny Cipriani slotted a penalty awarded to a strong Sale scrum.
The Chiefs soon had a penalty of their own but realised an attempt on the posts would be futile in the strong wind blowing off the river Exe. Instead, they went for the corner and through Thomas Waldrom and Don Armand strongly carried the ball, camping on the Sale 5 metre line. Eventually Waldrom forced the ball over the line for the Chiefs to take the lead.
A second try to take the score to 10-3 soon followed, when scrum half Will Chudley sniped through from 10m out. Kicker Gareth Steenson was denied by the wind for a second time, with the ball hovering painfully between the posts before being pushed back and dropping short.
However, Sale soon hit back to equalise. Another strong Sale scrum gave them a penalty to allow them to attack from a lineout just outside Exeter’s 22. The ball was quickly spread across the back line, and winger Will Addison to find a gap and score in the corner. Cipriani converted to level.
Exeter looked to take the lead before the break but their 5m lineout, such a potent weapon in previous games, failed them twice. Despite being camped on the Sale try line for the last ten minutes the TMO and strong Sale defence denied James Short a try, so the teams entered the dressing room on an equal footing.
The second halve began with embarrassingly weak defence from the Chiefs. With new England forwards’ coach Steve Borthwick in the crowd, Sale number 8 Josh Beaumont strode through from 40m out to cross the try line, Sale taking a 10-17 lead.
However, this was the last Sale score of the game. The wind battered the visitors back, acting like a 16th man to help Exeter keep the Sharks in their own halve, forcing them to run the ball instead of kicking to clear.
This allowed Exeter to counter straight back; when Exeter’s very strong forwards won a penalty at the breakdown Chudley tapped quickly to surprise the Sharks’ defence and run from the edge of the 22 for a third home try.
After Steenson finally opened his account with a penalty for an 18-17 lead on 54 minutes, Exeter hunted down a fourth try for the bonus point.
Amid a plethora of turnovers on the Sharks’ 22 Short picked up the ball on the wing to score. Steenson’s conversion put the Chiefs more than a converted try ahead with only ten minutes remaining and with Sale stuck in their own territory a Devon win looked to be a certain late Christmas present for the thunderous crowd.
This did not stop the Chiefs pushing for a further score. The home side refused to allow the visitors out of their own 22, a brutal Exeter defence forcing the Sharks into reverse over their own try line. From the subsequent 5m attacking scrum the Chiefs released Tom Johnson for the fifth try of the afternoon.
With replacement fly half Will Hooley pushed over a penalty in the final act of the game, this was a fantastic 33-17 win for Devon which included an outstanding performance from man of the match Chudley. Despite a few of Exeter’s stars injured for the foreseeable future, Eddie Jones should still be looking towards the Chiefs to fill a few positions for England in the 6 Nations.
Exeter Chiefs will now be looking forward to their New Year’s Day match up with a struggling Northampton Saints, who this weekend gifted a first Premiership win of the season to London Irish. Although the season is not yet halfway through, Exeter’s claims as a top four side are looking increasingly convincing.