Exeter Chiefs all-but cemented their hopes of a home Premiership semi-final with a dominating display over Gloucester at Sandy Park.
In front of 12,760 fans in a typically raucous atmosphere it was the Chiefs’ sheer relentlessness, rather than hugely impressive skill, that saw them overcome a spirited Gloucester side that had beaten them 28-21 at the reverse fixture at the beginning of the season.
The visitors nearly scored in the opening exchange; Henry Trinder collected his own kick and scampered down the sideline, only to be tackled into touch metres short of the line. Owen Williams then made it 0-3 from the penalty spot but from then on it was largely one-way traffic.
Exeter were forced to alter their backline after just 14 minutes when Sam Hill went off injured, which saw a return for Jack Nowell after his injury in England’s Six Nations loss to Scotland. They went ahead soon after, with the irrepressible Alec Hepburn scoring from a few metres out.
Two minutes later the Chiefs scored again, this time Sam Simmonds diving over after a driving line-out. Exeter coach Rob Baxter will however have some concerns surrounding his side’s line-out which, though usually a potent weapon, was plagued by uncharacteristic errors today.
“Chiefs were in cruise-control”
Gloucester were ferocious in defence, with impressive line speed and tackle accuracy leading to repeated turnovers and penalties against the hosts. But the immense strain they were put under began to show; they put in 100 tackles by the half-hour mark and, as the game wore on, they understandably began to tire.
Gloucester’s task became even greater when Ruan Ackermann was yellow-carded towards the end of a 40 minutes where 82% of the action was in their half. Exeter made the man advantage pay; Olly Woodburn, who was impressive throughout, streaked down the wing and passed inside to Skinner. The ball was recycled and Hepburn offloaded beautifully off the floor for Woodburn to streak onto, beating the Gloucester defenders to score.
If Gloucester were to salvage this game from 22-3 at half time, they needed to start converting chances they had fought tooth and nail to secure in the first half. They did score the opening try of the second half; the unusually quiet Mark Atkinson ghosted through the onrushing defence and fed Callum Braley to canter in.
This was a flash in the pan for a Gloucester side that, though they have the ability to spring tries from anywhere, did not have enough possession to establish a foothold in the game. They only had 52 carries up to Braley’s try, with 9 separate handling errors plaguing their attack. They disrupted the Exeter set piece on regular occasions and their defensive effort was admirable, but allowing the hosts to keep the ball for long periods wore them down.
No more was this evident than for Nowell’s try; after repeatedly picking and driving on the Gloucester line, sucking in the defence, Joe Simmonds slung a wide pass to Nowell who was allowed to walk in almost unchallenged. Five minutes later Nowell scored his second; after quick deft hands from Slade, Nowell crashed into three Gloucester defenders only to then find them all fall away from him, and he cantered away to score.
“We’re Still taking it game by game” – Nowell
From then on, the Chiefs were in cruise-control. Steenson grabbed the game’s final try when, after miscommunication from Gloucester’s Ed Slater, his pass dropped to nobody, and Steenson swept it up and ran in unopposed.
Exeter coach Ali Hepher was pleased with the result and, when asked about the Chief’s semi-final prospects after the game, was keen to stress “we’re still taking it game by game… but, with the amount of conditioning we’ve got into ourselves today, we kept pushing right the way to the end and that will help us in the latter stages of the season.”
Exeter winger Jack Nowell, after grabbing two tries, was delighted by the side’s performance: “to be able to come back into a team that’s playing so well makes it a lot easier.” Nowell, like the rest of the squad, is determined to challenge for the Premiership title and emulate last year’s success, and length lay-offs with injury have actually left the England star feeling fresh for the season’s knockout phase.
With Saracens’ imperious win away at Northampton on Saturday the top two places look all but set, and both teams will relish the opportunity to play their respective semi-finals in front of their own fans. If the roaring atmosphere of today’s sell-out affair was anything to go by, it will be a struggle for any visiting side to come away from Sandy Park with a win.