Venue: Sandy Park
Date: Saturday, 2 December
Kick-off: 14:00 GMT
Exeter (28) 42
Tries: Cowan-Dickie, Short, Lees, Armand, Waldrom, Steenson Cons: Steenson 6
Bath (3) 29
Tries: Joseph, Watson, Brew, Banahan Con: Joseph, Priestland 2 Pen: Burns
Exeter Chiefs extended their lead at the top of the Aviva Premiership, hammering Bath 42-29. An utterly dominant display saw the home side claim a try-bonus point before half-time before three tries in the final 10 minutes for Bath gave the result a semblance of respectability.
Going into the game, Exeter had won five on the bounce in the Aviva Premiership. Their 18-20 victory over Saracens last week sent them to the top of the table, and with the Allianz outfit away to Harlequins on Sunday, this was an opportunity for the Chiefs to put pressure on the chasing pack by extending their lead at the summit.
Welcoming back two thirds of their England contingent – Harry Williams and Sam Simmonds, the latter on the bench – Head Coach Rob Baxter made five changes from the team that defeated Saracens: Williams was joined by Alec Hepburn and Luke Cowan-Dickie in the front-row, James Short was picked on the wing, and former Exeter University second-row Sam Skinner came in for Jonny Hill.
The men in black got off to the perfect start, settling quickly with ball in hand. After five minutes of near-constant possession, a lovely short ball from fly-half and captain Gareth Steenson put Williams through a gap and take the Chiefs up into the Bath 22.
A great carry and offload by Mitch Lees to Thomas Waldrom took them up to the line. The Chiefs are ruthless from such positions, and it proved to be the case, with a series of pick-and-goes culminating in Cowan-Dickie driving over. Steenson added the conversion from in front – 7-0 to Exeter after seven minutes.
Ten minutes later and Exeter had their second score. Following a lineout on halfway, Exeter moved it to the left where full-back Phil Dollman’s half-break had Bath scrambling in defence. Dollman fed Waldrom, moving the ball back the other way, and following some nice hands Short leapt for the corner, profiting from some weak Bath defence. Steenson landed a fantastic kick from wide on the left touchline to convert the try.
Having narrowly claimed victory in the same fixture last season, Bath – without Taulupe Faletau, who was on Wales duty – never came close to repeating the feat. Despite having been starved of possession in the opening quarter, Todd Blackadder’s side insisted on kicking for territorial position, something Dollman, Woodburn and Short lapped up, running the ball back with interest.
It took until just before the half-hour point for Bath to get off the mark. A penalty on halfway gave Freddie Burns the opportunity to kick to touch; from the resulting lineout, a petulant push by Cowan-Dickie gave Burns the chance to kick for goal. Despite jeers from the home crowd, having had so little opportunity in attack, it was the correct decision and Burns nailed the three-pointer.
If Bath had hoped that would trigger a comeback it was in vain. Their loose set up at the restart allowed Exeter to reclaim the ball in the opposition’s 22. When the forwards took them underneath the posts once more, Lees bundled over the line to make it 21-3 after just half an hour.
The Somerset side still knocked on the door, but the Chiefs’ power at the breakdown shut down any momentum they could produce, forcing Burns to kick the ball away. Exeter were now chasing their fourth try before half-time – however unthinkable that may have been prior to kick-off, it fully reflected their dominance on the park.
They nearly grabbed it when Waldrom powered over in the corner but the number 8’s foot was in touch. Exeter weren’t to be denied for long, however; two minutes later and, once again, Exeter’s forwards took them underneath the posts and five metres from the Bath try-line. If not quite identical – Don Armand drove over to the right of the sticks – there was still a distinct inevitability whenever Exeter got in such positions. The bonus-point try was converted by Steenson to add salt to Bath’s wounds.
At 28-3 with the first-half drawing to a close, Bath needed a quick response. Full-back Anthony Watson and centre Ben Tapuai were threatening with ball in hand to put Exeter on the back foot. Scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i marshalled his forwards into the Exeter 22 for the most promising play of the game. However, Exeter were simply too strong at the ruck, and following several slow breakdowns, Cowan-Dickie got in over the ball to kill the attack – the referee pinging Bath for holding on – and, as the half-time whistle went, the game as a contest.
If Bath had hoped to make amends in the second-half it didn’t take long for Exeter to banish any hopes of redemption. The forwards hammered away to provide the platform, and despite good work from the backs – Sam Hill, Ian Whitten, Short and Dollman were particularly prominent – the fifth try just evaded the home side in the first ten minutes of the second period before arriving on 54 minutes.
Dollman broke in the wide channels before feeding Skinner – a persistent force in both the tight and the loose. Waldrom cropped up in the midfield and, finding space in the Bath defence, beat a course to the line for the most popular try of the afternoon.
Bath had a period of pressure under the Exeter posts, but where the Chiefs were utterly ruthless in the same position, the away side toiled without any reward. Instead, it was Short who nearly scored: picking up a loose ball deep in his own half, the winger hared down the field beating several defenders with his pace – only for Watson to produce an excellent cover tackle to pull him into touch.
With fifteen minutes to play, Bath were now playing for pride, and following Watson’s heroic effort, it was another Lions player – Jonathan Joseph – who made a key contribution. With Exeter pressing for a sixth try, the ball was hacked on by Joseph and the outside-centre regathered the kick to race in under the posts, quickly converting his own score.
Once again Bath’s set up at the restart proved costly. With the forwards relishing the opportunity to hammer at the Bath line, space opened up on the left for captain Steenson to dive over unopposed – another popular scorer with the home crowd. The fly-half then landed a fantastic kick from the flank to make the score 42-10 with just over ten minutes to play.
Considering the firepower in Bath’s backline – Rokoduguni and Aled Brew had been anonymous all game – Exeter could be happy with the way they completely nullified the visitors’ threat. Rhys Priestland’s introduction, however, changed that, and Bath threw caution in the wind in the final ten minutes to score three more tries and secure a try-bonus point of their own.
The first came following a clever dink by Priestland in his own half. Tapuai gathered, and his neat interplay with replacement Chris Cook gave Watson the chance to slide over in the corner. This was quickly followed by another: Matt Banahan broke down the left, and when the ball came infield, a lovely lofted pass by Priestland found fellow Welshman Brew. The winger slid over in the corner despite the close attention of the Exeter defence, and following a long look from the TMO, the try was awarded.
With time almost up, Exeter needlessly gave Bath a shot at a fourth by turning possession over at the breakdown. The resulting scrum was a solid platform for Bath, and Banahan powered through a weak shoulder from first-phase ball to claim give Bath something to show for their efforts, Priestland converting to cap an impressive cameo.
Despite the scoreline, this was a fantastic display by the Chiefs, albeit tempered by a slightly less impressive final ten minutes. The comeback, however, was similarly reflective of Bath’s potency more than any deficiency from the home side. Exeter Forwards coach Rob Hunter admitted as much: he said. “They are a good side, they were always going to come back into it.”
“It was very pleasing to get out the blocks and get ahead as we did. We’ve given them a bonus point in the last 20 that they didn’t need, but in the first 50-60 minutes we were outstanding”. The Chiefs return to Sandy Park next week when they face Leinster in the Champions Cup.
Exeter Chiefs: Dollman; Woodburn, Whitten, S Hill, Short; Steenson (capt), White; Hepburn, Cowan-Dickie, Williams, Lees, Skinner, Armand, Kvesic, Waldrom.
Replacements: Yeandle, Moon, Holmes, J Hill, S Simmonds, Chudley, J Simmonds, Nowell
Bath: Watson; Rokoduguni, Joseph, Tapuai, Brew; Burns, Fotuali’i, Obano, Dunn, Perenise, Ewels, Charteris, Garvey (capt), Mercer, Grant
Replacements: van Vuuren, Auterac, Lahiff, Stooke, Phillips, Cook, Priestland, Banahan
MOM: Sam Skinner (Exeter)