E xeter Chiefs moved to the summit of the Aviva Premiership, emerging 31-17 victors from an entertaining and frantic match with Harlequins.
The Chiefs went into the game in the lofty position of second, having won their last six Premiership fixtures – a loss on an opening day away to Gloucester their only blemish. The visitors sat 7th in the table, six points adrift of the Chiefs and looking to make up ground in the pursuit of the playoffs.
Harlequins had been ravaged by injuries and had a number of absentees due to international call-ups, whereas the Chiefs welcomed back England debutant Joe Simmonds – starting the game on the bench -, with Rob Baxter’s squad starting to repatch itself after a number of long-term injuries.
Fresh from a 40-0 demolition of the Llanelli Scarlets in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the Chiefs began with vibrant interplay, challenging the Quins defence. It wasn’t long before the home side scored, as six minutes in Lachie Turner was gifted an easy try.
Beguiling movement from Phil Dollman saw him manoeuvre around several tackles and a simple offload to Turner translated into a beautifully worked try. Gareth Steenson – making his 200th appearance – duly converted to give the hosts a 7-0 lead six minutes in.
“UNCHARACTERISTICALLY WEAK CHIEFS DEFENDING”
Harlequins responded with a try of their own just four minutes later, as James Chisholm broke Chiefs ranks and surged through; this was uncharacteristically weak defending from a Chiefs defence that has conceded the fewest points in the league. The conversion, from Marcus Smith, sailed through the posts to level the game, 7-7.
A lull in the game followed this blistering opening ten minutes, with a number of loose passes and missed tackles disrupting the natural flow. Yet Exeter sparked into life from a scrum on the Quins 22-metre line; slick, unselfish passing opened up a channel and left the visitors’ defence back-pedalling.
Olly Woodburn bundled over and Steenson kicked the conversion from a devilishly tight angle to reassert the home side’s lead.
Despite the Chief’s verve going forward, there was a discernible sense of sloppiness to their play. This was crystallised and then punished, as Smith kicked high into the air – a seemingly simple catch for the Chiefs’ receiver, Steenson. A moment of hesitation, though, saw the ball drop yards in front of him as Smith’s chase applied the necessary pressure. Tim Visser duly collected the loose ball and ran over to level the scores four minutes before half-time. An episode of calamity, but this was not in isolation – such a mistake was coming.
Harlequins threatened to make life even worse for the Chiefs as they headed into the break, but a consultation with the TMO denied the visitors a third try. Smith, who along with Mat Laumanu had been impressive in the first half, however, did give Harlequins a lead before half-time with a simple penalty.
An early onslaught from Exeter immediately after the break produced a storming try from Jonny Hill, who had twice threatened to reach the try-line in a dominating five-minute spell. The conversion, predictably, eased through the post and the Chiefs regained their lead.
“rock solid chiefs defence was a drastic change”
The visitors fought back, subscribing to the natural you-score-we-score flow of the game, and looked to have regained the lead. A delicate chip from Smith evaded the Chiefs defence and looked to have been seized, but the rule was overturned, with the ball not grounded.
This was the one worrying moment in a second half where the Chiefs defence stood tall, stood firm and refused to be breached. A second-half shut out from Baxter’s men showed why they’ve conceded the fewest points in the league and was a drastic turn around given the complacency of the first-half.
A Steenson penalty seconds from full-time added the gloss on a bonus-point win from the home side.
The win adds spice to next week’s matchup, where the Chiefs will travel to the Saracens – who they leapfrogged today – in a bid to hold onto their position atop of the league.
MOTM: Marcus Smith, Harlequins.