Chiefs 6 Connacht 8
Exeter Chiefs 6
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter admitted he and his team would not get too disheartened despite kicking off their pre-season campaign with a narrow 8-6 defeat at home to Connacht at Sandy Park.
In the first of three warm-up clashes ahead of the new Aviva Premiership, Baxter’s side were unable to replicate their success of 12 months previous when they overcame their Irish rivals 47-10 at Dubarry Park.
This time round, Eric Elwood’s visitors were a much stronger outfit in all departments and it was a decisive second half try from winger Fetu’u Vainikolo that proved the key difference in the final scoreline.
The Tongan international struck just before the hour mark as Connacht turned defence into attack, allowing the speedster to slip away from the clutching advances of Exeter’s Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki.
The Chiefs rallied hard in the closing stages, but either wrong decision-making or some early season rustiness proved costly as a handful of chances came and went.
Afterwards Baxter said he was “disappointed” to have seen his side’s pre-season programme start with a loss, but is confident performances will improve ahead of their seasonal opener against Sale Sharks on September 1.
“Obviously we’re disappointed not to have won,” he said. “We said to the guys beforehand; first and foremost let’s go out and win a game of rugby and work from there. At the same time, you have to give credit to Connacht because they came here and they were very dogged, particularly around the contact area and in defence, and they caused us enough problems to get a win.
“We are obviously unhappy with the amount of errors we made, probably more so in the first half because that is where we had our real clear cut opportunities and we were creating good opportunities, but a lot of time we just dropped the ball , we threw a bad pass or we made a little error.
“I thought for most of the game we looked comfortable in defence, but then we get turned over, the guy make a break up the wing and the game is gone a bit. As I said, I’m disappointed with the end outcome, but it’s like anything with pre-season we’ve now got some real quality video to sit down and analysis with the guys and talk things through.
“The guys have only been back this week from a long break and that showed a little bit too. It showed with our handling and our sharpness, but that is why you have pre-season games and that’s why we have three of them. We will certainly get better, so I’m not disheartened to lose to a decent Connacht side who came here with a point to prove after last season.”
With Baxter opting to stick with many of his tried and trusted stars from last season’s highly successful campaign, it was only Ulsterman Ian Whitten of the eight newcomers who was handed a starting berth.
He teamed up in the centre alongside Naqelevuki, whilst on the wing there was a first return since January for Samoan international Josh Tatupu.
In a tight opening to the contest, it was Connacht who broke the deadlock on five minutes when Nikora fired over a penalty after home prop Hoani Tui was penalised for playing the ball on the floor.
Connacht’s slender advantage proved shortlived as within three minutes parity was restored when Gareth Steenson landed a kick of his own after the visitors were pulled up by referee Andrew Small.
Steenson doubled his tally on 27 minutes with a second penalty, but the Chiefs were unable to add to their tally as chances came and went in quick succession.
The second period saw Exeter back on the offensive once more with Matt Jess and Phil Dollman combining to good effect, but still the scoreboard remained untouched.
Exeter continued to push forward in pursuit of points, but when they were turned over attacking near halfway, it was Vainikolo who was able to pounce as he galloped down the left flank.
Still the Chiefs – who added a flurry of late replacements – pushed hard for points, but sadly it was to no avail.
Next up for Baxter’s side is Saturday’s visit of the Cornish Pirates to Sandy Park (3pm).
Chiefs: P Dollman; J Tatupu (M Foster h/t), S Naqelevuki (N Sestaret 54), I Whitten (S Hill 66), M Jess; G Steenson (M Dorrian 74), K Barrett; B Moon (B Sturgess 54), C Whitehead (S Alcott 66), H Tui (A Brown 66); T Hayes (capt, D Welsh 72), J Hanks (A Muldowney 54); B White (J Phillips 54), J Scaysbrook (D Ewers 72), R Baxter (K Horstmann 66).
Penalties - Steenson (2)
Connacht: T O'Halloran (M Jarvis 57); F Vainikolo (M McCrea 75), K Tonnetti, B Murphy, J Loxton (M McCrea h/t); M Nikora (K Marmion 66), D Moore (M Fifita 41); F Bealham (JH Wright 32), A Flavin (D Buckley 25), P Reilly (JP Cooney h/t); M Swift (capt, M Kearney h/t), D Gannon; A Browne, E Grace (W Faloon h/t), G Naoupu (E McKeon h/t).
Try - Vainikolo; Penalty - Nikora
Referee: A Small