The Exeter Chiefs continued their fine form at Sandy Park by seeing off West Country rivals Gloucester on Saturday, scoring three first half tries to run out 19-10 winners. In truth, the Chiefs were not made to work hard for their tries as Gloucester failed to cope with the blustery conditions, although the visitors vastly improved their performance in the second half with the wind behind them.
It had been raining all night before the game which left the pitch muddy and the Chiefs faithful would have been forgiven for thinking that this would be a low-scoring, set-piece dominated game decided by the accuracy of the teams’ respective kickers. However, largely thanks to the heavy investment by the Chiefs into their hybrid pitch, the hallowed turf would keep from churning up.
Gareth Steenson got proceedings underway and with only 6 minutes on the clock, the Chiefs would have their first try. Gloucester fly-half James Hook seemingly took an age to clear the ball from his 22, allowing the impressive Julian Salvi to charge him down. Thomas Waldrom was on hand to dribble the ball over the line before picking up to crash over, much to the delight of the home crowd.
With ten minutes barely being played, fan-favourite Waldrom had another. Rob Cook’s clearing kick had been sliced into touch, allowing the Chiefs a five-metre attacking lineout. Considering the imperious form of the Chiefs maul so far this season, there would only be one result. Steenson missed the conversion but Exeter were out to an early 12-0 lead.
Errors were symptomatic in Gloucester’s play in the early stages of the game as Henry Purdy dropped a high ball and their lineout was put under immense strain by man of the match Geoff Parling. To the Chiefs’ credit, they capitalised on these errors and made minimal mistakes of their own. Steenson was marshalling the backline expertly, putting the hosts in the right parts of the pitch and his counterparts simply could not match his tactical kicking. On 23 minutes, a delightful chip into the Gloucester 22 was not gathered by either Cook or Purdy, allowing Olly Woodburn to gather and score in the corner. Steenson produced a pinpoint conversion and the Chiefs had an unassailable 19-0 lead.
Gloucester came into the game thereafter, showing some continuity in their phase play, especially from the dangerous Cook. However the Chiefs’ defence was more than up to the task and the Cherry and Whites never looked like threatening the try line. James Hook kicked the ball into touch to end the first half.
Olly Woodburn gathered the Gloucester kick off extremely well, especially considering the wet conditions, as he dived forward to welcome the ball into his arms. Waldrom’s former team-mate in Wellington Jeremy Thrush was relishing the blustery conditions, leading the Gloucester pack in their comeback.
The introduction of Ross Moriarty in place of Ben Morgan was paying dividends as the Welsh international begun to dent holes in the Chiefs defence. Errors were starting to creep in for the hosts as Steenson dropped a simple pass. Greig Laidlaw would get the visitors on the board with a simple penalty.
Waldrom would swing the momentum back in the Chiefs’ favour, crashing through the Gloucester line after an excellent pass from the ever-threatening Will Chudley. The Exeter scrum was also beginning to gain an upper hand as Tomas Francis and company began to win penalty decisions from the referee.
Billy Burns’ introduction in place of Hook seemed to breathe new life into the Gloucester backline and it was his chip over the top to Bill Meakes that gave Gloucester their first real sight of the Chiefs try line. After a solid scrum, Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples was able to dart over in the corner to give the visitors their first try. Burns’ touchline conversion was inch-perfect and the score was now 19-10 with ten minutes remaining.
While the Chiefs held on for a comfortable win, this was marred by the sight of talisman Jack Nowell in visible pain on the ground. His knee buckling from a Moriarty tackle, the England wing was forced to hobble off the pitch. Coach Ali Hepher spoke after the game, confirming that it was a sprained knee. However he did little to allay fears of a lengthy lay-off stating that often the least painful injuries can be the most serious. No doubt Nowell would have been eyeing a starting berth on the England wing following the serious injury to Gloucester’s Jonny May.
While the Chiefs will have targeted a try bonus point, especially after their fast start, Rob Baxter and co will no doubt be satisfied to have kept up their imperious form at home. With Saracens’ first loss of the season to Harlequins, the Chiefs trail the North London club by three points.