GOING into the game, you could be forgiven for thinking an Exeter win in the varsity match was something of a formality.
Buoyed by a flawless winning streak at Sandy Park — with last season being the first time since 2011 that Bath managed to chalk up double-figures, shipping an average of 43 points in the last three fixtures alone — the EURFC 1s looked set to stamp their authority over their South West rivals once more.
Bath, however, clearly hadn’t read the script. If the driving rain hadn’t already dampened spirits on a grim Valentine’s Day, the Somerset side’s forward-oriented gameplan ensured it was a frustrating evening for the Green Army.
An even first-half saw Bath repeatedly claw back the home side’s advantage on the scoreboard. With both sides looking to minimise errors in a cagey second period, Bath’s forward power edged them into an improbable lead for the first time in the final quarter, and it needed a late rally from Exeter to secure the win and a deserved bonus-point victory to keep them in the hunt for the top spot of the BUCS Super Rugby Championship.
Buoyed by a raucous sell-out crowd at Sandy Park, Exeter got off the mark with a Ted Landray penalty in front of the posts on seven minutes after the backs broke from a lineout on halfway. Bath were already looking to contain the home side, playing the percentages and keeping it tight, but they couldn’t capitalise on a mix-up at the resulting restart that handed them a 5m lineout. Instead, it was Exeter who got the next score.
After a charge-down by Dom Thorne on halfway, the 1s earned a penalty and opted for the corner. A try looked certain as the maul thundered towards the line, and when Bath hauled it down just short, the referee wasted no time in awarding the penalty try, sending Bath tight-head David da Costa to the bin.
Exeter failed to capitalise on their numerical advantage. Clever territorial kicking by Bath fly-half Will Flinn put his team deep into Exeter territory, and a break by Luca Petrozzi provided the platform for his forwards.
They weren’t to be denied — Landray and Luc-Pierre Riou stopped full-back Will Partington on the line, but as the ball was recycled loose-head Austin Hay barrelled over between the posts to bring the first quarter to a close at 10-7. Exeter responded well and were unfortunate to have a try chalked off — Felix Maddison was adjudged to have obstructed the Bath defence as second-row Jack Rouse rumbled over — though they didn’t have to wait long to make amends.
A loose kick by Bath allowed Exeter to spread the ball to the left. Mike Haines got on the outside of the defending line, bursting into the 22 at pace before feeding it to Thorne. Hugging the touchline, the nippy winger produced a wonderful hand-off on Partington, floating a one-handed offload back over the defender’s head and into the grateful hands of Haines for a majestic try. Landray added the extras, and the crowd was in raptures.
As the rain continued to fall, the conditions only favoured Bath. The visitors were happy to slow the game down and rely on handling errors by Exeter. Their approach paid dividends just after the half-hour. A big Flinn up-and-under cannoned off Landray’s shoulder as he tried to catch it and Partington pounced on the loose ball to race over in the corner. The full-back landed a glorious conversion from the touchline despite receiving plenty of abuse from the watching spectators and Bath were back within three points.
With the half drawing to a close, the momentum was firmly with the visitors. Partington burst through three despairing tackles in a rare moment of expansive play. When Bath moved it to the right, creating a two-on-one, Exeter’s last man Sal M’boge was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on. Bath hammered at the line — and captain Simon Linsell received a talking to from the referee for repeated infringements by the 1s — but as the clock ticked into the red, the blues knocked the ball on as they drove over the line. A reprieve for Exeter — having looked the more potent of the two sides, to have trailed at half-time would have been a bitter pill to swallow.
Having missed 12 tackles, conceded seven penalties, and knocking the ball on six times in the first period — despite the fantastic surface at Sandy Park — the conditions dictated that this was a contest likely to be decided by accuracy and whichever side could minimise errors.
The half-time teamtalk seemingly had the desired effect as Exeter held onto the ball far better in the second-half. After an agonising period of kick tennis — both sides were determined to play the game in the opposition’s territory and exchanged 20 consecutive kicks in the process — the 1s grabbed a greater hold of the game up front. The home side rung the changes early on — replacing the front-row in the 46th minute — and a powerful drive at a Bath put-in saw the ball spill loose. From there, Exeter’s forwards edged towards the line, and after six phases Linsell crashed over beneath the bar.
As in the first, Bath refused to give in and scored their third try on 55 minutes. Having edged up the field after poor Exeter kicking, Bath wheeled a lineout maul away from the 1s’ counter-drive. Charlie Dunbar dotted down, Partington added the extras, and Exeter’s lead was cut to three once more. It was a moment of magic that gave Bath the lead as the game entered the final quarter. From more good work by their forwards, Flinn saw space behind the 1s’ line and collected his own chip from the 22 to dot down unopposed.
Exeter could feel a little aggrieved to find themselves behind. Rather than any glaring mistakes, it was marginal errors that were proving costly as Bath’s ruthlessness in attack — grinding out the hard yards through their forwards when in Exeter’s half — showed no sign of relenting.
The crowd needed something to cheer, and captain Linsell responded in emphatic style. A gruelling maul from Exeter’s 22 took the play into the Bath half; a neat grubber by Landray nearly put Max Himbury away but Bath, now on the back foot, were forced to concede the penalty.
Exeter went to the corner — a wise decision. With close ties to the Exeter Chiefs, a side renowned for their prowess in forward pick-and-goes near the opposition’s line, the 1s looked assured as first James McRae and then George Gosling made big gains to provide Linsell with the platform to smash over for his second at a crucial moment in the game. With the try bonus-point secured, Exeter’s task became securing the win by whatever means they could.
They managed the feat with determination. A wonderful take and break by Sam Morley from deep in his 22, supported by Jesse Lipetz-Robic, took Exeter right up to the line. With Bath flagging, the first breakdown steal of the game was a welcome event for the visitors, but Exeter weren’t to be denied for long.
Bath refused to clear their lines and impressive counter-rucking on the 5m line by Jack Strong and Josh Pieterse secured Exeter’s first turnover. The 1s piled on the pressure. Rouse, Linsell and McRae were prominent as Exeter went through 16 phases before Pieterse got over the whitewash to cap a magnificent cameo in the loose.
With that, the crowd was satisfied, and began to make their way into the wet Wednesday night. The 1s ran down the closing seconds with ease and the bragging rights went to Exeter. After the game, Linsell spoke about the tricky test Bath provide: “Credit to [Bath] they came at us hard.
“We’re not that happy with out performance today [but] we’ll take the five points. Credit to the bench, they came on and gave us the firepower we needed to bring home the win in the end.” The victory keeps the 1s hot on the heels of Northumbria and, crucially, extends Exeter’s varsity streak for one more year.
Venue: Sandy Park
Date: Wednesday, 14 February, 2018
Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Exeter (17) 36
Tries: Penalty Try, Haines, Linsell 2, Pieterse Cons: Landray 4 Pen: Landray
Bath (14) 28
Tries: Hay, Partington, Dunbar, Flinn Cons: Partington 4
Exeter: 15. Sal Mo’boge; 14. Max Himbury, 13. Mike Haines, 12. Ted Landray, 11. Dom Thorne; 10. Sam Morley; 9. Ed Houchin; 8. James McRae, 7. Felix Maddison, 6. Luc-Pierre Riou; 5. Jack Rouse, 4. Simon Linsell (c); 3. Fraser Bruce, 2. Callum Young, 1. Will Cutbill
Replacements: 16. George Gosling, 17. Josh Pieterse, 18. Jack Strong, 19. Rory Lorimer; 20. Aaron Bagwell, 21. Jesse Lipetz-Robic, 22. Matt Blandford
Bath: 15. Will Partington; 14. Will Hughes, 13. Charlie Dunbar, 12. Craig Duncan, 11. Levi Davis; 10. Will Flinn, 9. Luca Petrozzi; 8. James Catlin, 7. Miles Reid, 6. Jack Davies; 5. Scott Russell, 4. Will Britton (c); 3. David da Costa, 2. Tom Doughty, 1. Austin Hay
Replacements: 16. Beck Cutting, 17. Jake Buckingham, 18. Gus Antons, 19. Mike Snook; 20. Chris Barry, 21. Alex Burrage, 22. Finn Murphy