Tigers 31 Chiefs 27
Leicester Tigers 31
Exeter Chiefs 27
Mark Stevens at Welford Road
One thing that’s a given with Exeter Chiefs is that their fighting spirit will always be there in abundance.
The fact they showed it for only 40 minutes at Welford Road was the real disappointment for head coach Rob Baxter, who had to watch his side fight back from 31-6 down to rescue a losing bonus against Leicester Tigers.
Exeter’s hopes of moving back to the summit of the Aviva Premiership ahead of defending champions Saracens were thwarted by an impressive Tigers side, who themselves moved back into the play-off picture with this bonus point triumph.
Fly-half Freddie Burns converted all four of the home side’s tries, which came courtesy of a penalty try and touchdowns for Manu Tuilagi, Peter Betham and Adam Thompstone, as well as adding a first half penalty.
However, the Chiefs countered with converted scores of their own through Dave Lewis, Ian Whitten and Kai Horstmann, as well as two penalties from fly-half Gareth Steenson.
Fresh from a derby day win over Bath, the Chiefs arrived in the East Midlands having made five changes to their winning formula. Three of them came in the front-row as Baxter took the opportunity to recall international props Moray Low and Tomas Francis, either side of skipper Jack Yeandle, while behind there were also starts for former Tigers’ openside Julian Salvi and Matt Jess was brought in on the right wing.
Leicester, meanwhile, also made a glut of changes to their starting line-up from that which had comprehensively dispatched of lowly London Irish. They recalled international stars Logovi’i Mulipola, Vereniki Goneva and Peter Betham to the fold, while they were also forced into a late change at full-back when Mathew Tait was ruled out with a groin injury, so Tommy Bell stepped into the fray to fill the anchor slot.
With personnel in place for both sides, it was the Chiefs who offered the game’s first meaningful attack when Yeandle collected in midfield and tore through the heart of the home defence with just three minutes of the contest having elapsed.
The move, however, came to nothing and it was the Tigers who were the next to threaten, England international Tuilagi introducing himself to the masses with a bone-crunching hit on Exeter’s Phil Dollman, who was celebrating his 100th Premiership start for the Devon club.
Dollman happily survived unscathed on this occasion, as did winger James Short who was then tested with a series of ‘hanging bombs’ from the boots of Messrs Burns and Bell. The tactic of testing the Chiefs back three was one they had clearly been working on, but the visitors manfully dealt with the threat in an action-packed opening to the game.
The Tigers, though, continued to push forward in attack and eventually the game’s deadlock was broken on 16 minutes when Burns plundered a long-range penalty after Low was penalised for not rolling away at the tackle area.
Home cheers proved short-lived as within two minutes Steenson restored parity with a successful penalty of his own after Lachlan McCaffrey was singled out by referee Matt Carley for infringing at a ruck in front of his own posts.
With little to choose between either side, the Chiefs were lucky to escape when Jess deliberately knocked down a pass intended for Goneva. Not only did the winger avoid a potential yellow card, but Bell pulled the testing penalty chance from on the left touchline wide of the far post.
But whereas Jess escaped the wrath of the officials, sadly the same fate did not fall on former Tiger Geoff Parling, who was banished to the sin-bin for a professional foul as he looked to defend a Leicester line-out. Initially Carley was unsure of the grounding made by Thacker, but having consulted with the TV match official, not only did he banish the England and British Lions star to the cooler for ten minutes, but he also awarded a penalty try.
Burns landed the extras to that score and Leicester’s second try, which arrived just two minutes later. Turning over an intended Steenson pass, the Tigers ruthlessly cut loose initially down the left before shifting the ball back across their inside line to Tuilagi, who was able to coast over with little resistance.
Up against it, the Chiefs did at least finish the half on the front foot and a sustained spell of pressure was duly rewarded with the final action of the half when Steenson slotted a second penalty.
HALF TIME LEICESTER TIGERS 17 EXETER CHIEFS 6
Having been given a sniff of success at the end of the first period, the Chiefs started the second as though they really meant business. A dominant first scrum set the tone and for a four-minute spell they really had the hammer down, pressing hard at the Leicester line.
Dollman went closest following a slick backs move, but the Welshman was unable to cap his milestone day with a score. Instead, he was swallowed up by the Tigers defence and then spat out the side.
The Chiefs continued to push for answers, but when Steenson was upended just outside the home 22, the Tigers mopped up the loose ball in an instance, shipping it to the left to Betham, who galloped over half the field to score the home side’s third try of the afternoon.
Still reeling from that untimely body blow, the Chiefs were then floored by a knockout blow just minutes later. Having kicked a penalty to the right corner, Thacker’s long throw over the top found McCaffrey, who in turn shipped it to the onrushing Thompstone, who had cut in off his wing and led a merry charge underneath the sticks.
With a mountain seemingly to climb, the Chiefs responded valiantly as they looked for a way back into the match. A succession of five-metre line-outs had them within inches of the home line only for home lock Dom Barrow to deliberately thwart their charge.
As he had done in the first period, Carley again produced a yellow card for the former England Under-20s star, but crucially no penalty try on this occasion, much to the angst of the Exeter coaching staff sat midway up the Crumbie Stand.
Undeterred, the visitors continued to press forward and having seen Burns blatantly knock down another attacking pass, Baxter’s side used the resulting line-out to drive in field, where Lewis was on the back of a maul to dot down for Exeter’s opening try.
Steenson obliged with the conversion to that score and Exeter’s second which arrived in a flash through Whitten, who collected a pass just inside the Leicester half and then raced away from the home cover to score under the posts.
However, just as it looked the Chiefs were hauling themselves back into the match, they were dealt another hammer blow when Jess became the second Exeter player to see yellow, the ‘Heamoor Flyer’ sent to the sidelines after he upended Burns in the air as he looked to chase down his own ‘up and under’.
Although down a man, the Chiefs continued to offer the greater attacking threat. The problem, however, was they couldn’t turn pressure into points and it was the Tigers who were more than happy to milk out the final minutes of the match, slowing the contest down at every opportunity.
But as the final seconds elapsed away, Steenson punted a penalty to the corner in one last throw of the dice from the Devonians. The subsequent line-out drive went close, but not close enough, before it was shunted back left to the other side of the turf. Exeter probed further with a succession of pick-and-go drives, the fruits of which finally harvested a try for Horstmann, who this week celebrated penning a new one-year deal with the club.
The Chiefs bench erupted on the sidelines to the score, which was duly converted by the ever-reliable Steenson to leave just four points in it at the death.
Just quite what could have happened had the Chiefs played the first half like they did much of the second only time will tell. However, Baxter has already sown the seed for a rapid response next week at Sandy Park, where Newcastle Falcons provide the opposition.
Tigers: T Bell; A Thompstone (T Veainu 79), P Betham, M Tuilagi, V Goneva; F Burns (O Williams 64), J Kitto; M Ayerza (R Brugnara 60), H Thacker (M van Vuuren 79), L Mulipola (F Balmain h/t, Mulipola 72); M Fitzgerald (G Kitchener 76), D Barrow (M Williams 64); T Croft, L McCaffrey, E Slater (capt). Replacement (not used): G Tresidder.
Tries - Penalty Try, Tuilagi, Betham, Thompstone; Conversions - Burns (4); Penalty - Burns
Yellow Card - Barrow
Chiefs: P Dollman; M Jess (M Bodilly 74), I Whitten, S Hill, J Short (W Hooley 76); G Steenson, D Lewis (W Chudley 58); M Low (A Hepburn 58), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 70), T Francis (H Williams 58); O Atkins (L Stevenson 25-27, 64), G Parling; D Ewers (K Horstmann 60), J Salvi, D Armand.
Tries - Lewis, Whitten, Horstmann; Conversions - Steenson (3); Penalties - Steenson (2)
Yellow Cards: Parling, Jess
Referee: M Carley