Exeter Chiefs kept their Premiership Rugby Cup hopes alive with an enthralling 25-18 victory over south west rivals Bath in testing conditions at Sandy Park.
Both teams made a raft of changes from their full-strength line ups with Joe Simmonds, moved to fullback for this game, and Ollie Devoto arguably the only starters who would be considered regular fixtures in the Chiefs line up this season. Bath meanwhile looked to bring some experience into their starting line up with Welsh legend Jamie Roberts starting at inside centre.
Both teams made a raft of changes with many key men on international duty
Bath started the game brightly putting the hosts under early pressure. With the wind against them it was difficult for the Chiefs to kick out from defence. After some nice offloads and an offensive move straight off the training ground, Bath were able to win a penalty right under the posts after four minutes, fly half Alex Davies having no issues slotting the ball between the posts.
That seemed to kick the hosts into life as they then put in a sustained spell of pressure on the Bath defence. Driving mauls led to Bath conceding a number of penalties and with-it territory as the Chiefs began to smell blood. After ten minutes of exceptionally resilient defence from the forwards, Exeter managed to break through and score their first try of the game. Changing tactics, the Chiefs decided to play through the backs, with quick hands, now a mainstay of their play, proving too much for the Bath defence to handle as a looping pass from Ollie Devoto found James Short on the left wing to brilliantly power home. The wind made the conversion from Joe Simmonds difficult as he missed short-left giving the Chiefs a 5-3 lead after 17 minutes.
THE SPEED WITH WHICH EXETER MOVED THE BALL ACROSS THE BACK LINE PROVED TOO MUCH FOR BATH
A ragged and at times sloppy passage of play ensued, as Bath failed to find touch with a number of kicks, notably Tom O’Flaherty doing well in one instance to leap like a salmon whilst over the touch line to keep the ball alive. A number of handling errors from Bath and the Chiefs saw possession bounce between either side in the middle of the park as the teams battled to try and gain some control of the play. After 31 minutes came a crucial moment in the match with Bath’s Lucas Noguera given a yellow card after a scrum incident. This moment came as no surprise after ample warning from the referee over Bath’s ill-discipline in a first half that saw them concede an astonishing 10 penalties.
The Chiefs were able to use their man advantage to create an overlap and break through the Bath defence with Ollie Devoto crossing over and Simmonds converting, this time from a much friendlier angle. Bath knew they needed a quick response to keep them in the game, and that they managed when Ross Batty crossed over after a number of phases from the Bath forwards ultimately proved too much for a tiring Exeter defence. Alex Davies missed the resulting conversion leaving the half time score 12-8 to the Chiefs.
Both teams came out firing early in the second half with the Chiefs gaining an early three points from a Joe Simmonds penalty. This was quickly followed by Tom O’Flaherty crossing over in the corner after another clever move from the Chiefs backs from the base of an attacking scrum, giving Exeter a 22-8 lead. Bath, however, were not to be disheartened and again began to build up some momentum which ultimately led to Jack Wilson scoring his first try of the game after Fotuali’i and Darren Atkins had done well to draw in the Chiefs defence.
DESPITE EXETER’S COMFORTABLE LEAD, BATH NEVER FALTERED IN THEIR EFFORTS
A large number of substitutions from both sides broke up play for a short time before Bath again began to establish their dominance on the ball against a tiring Exeter defence. Max Clark, on for Jamie Roberts, looked particularly dangerous as he found a quick step and burst of pace on 70 minutes to breach the Chiefs defence as Wilhem Van Der Sluys picked up a yellow in his efforts to stop what looked a certain try. With the Chiefs having to play the rest of the game a man down, Bath seemed to find a second wind as they used their man advantage to again find Jack Wilson free on the right wing to power over for his second of the game. This led to a comical moment in the game, in his rush to move proceedings on swiftly, Alex Davies decided to drop kick his conversion attempt from wide right, only for the ball to get no more than 2m off the floor and swerve far left, perhaps too eager as this left Bath 22-18 down, and needing another try with five minutes left on the clock.
With two minutes left Fotuali’i’s box-kick was superbly charged down by Chiefs man Onehunga Kaufusi, keeping Bath penned into their own 10 as they desperately searched for a late try. This ultimately led to a Chiefs penalty which Harvey Skinner had no trouble slotting between the posts to give the Chiefs a well-deserved, hard fought 25-18 victory.