Bath 16 Chiefs 23
Bath Rugby 16
Exeter Chiefs 26
Mark Stevens at the Recreation Ground
In the ancient Roman City, it was Exeter Chiefs’ very own modern-day gladiator who came to their rescue, securing a vital Gallagher Premiership victory over Bath in this thrilling Westcountry derby.
With just two minutes remaining, Sam Simmonds picked from the base of a close-range scrum to propel himself under the home posts, heaping further misery on a beleaguered Bath outfit who are now winless in eight starts this season.
Up until that point, Stuart Hooper’s side had produced arguably their best display of the campaign so far, bagging a converted first half from Miles Reid, as well as three penalties from fly-half Orlando Bailey.
The Chiefs kept themselves in check with two penalties from Henry Slade during the first period, before Kiwi prop Josh Iosefa-Scott powered over for his first try in Exeter colours early in the second half.
Bath responded to that setback and would edge back in front before the visitors – using their heavyweight brutes up front to full effect – found a way to send Simmonds over for his 73rd touchdown for the club.
Younger brother Joe converted that effort, before dispatching a last-kick penalty, to make it ten wins on the bounce for the Chiefs over Bath.
Ahead of kick-off, Director of Rugby Rob Baxter was buoyed by the return of a number of his international stars following the recent Autumn Nations Series. There were also starts for Ian Whitten and Iosefa-Scott, who was pulled up inside three minutes from dropping a scrum.
It was tough call on the former Waikato Chiefs man, but it allowed Bath to get their account up and running as Bailey plundered a long-range kick to give his side an early lead.
Bath’s lead proved shortlived, however, as within five minutes the visitors had drew level when referee Matt Carley pinged Bath for infringing at a ruck, gifting Slade the opportunity to land a kick of his own.
With both sides throwing bodies into collisions, the first quarter was brought to a close with the game’s opening try. Having a leaked a penalty just inside their own half, the Chiefs could do little as the Blue, Black & Whites positioned themselves just metres from the Exeter try-line.
The initial home thrust appeared to have been held, but when the home pack spun the maul to the left, it had enough force behind it to send Reid over in the corner. Bailey slotted the testing touchline conversion, much to the joy of the majority packed into the famous Rec.
Just as before, the Chiefs were quickly back on the offensive and with Slade reducing the arrears with a second successful penalty, there was again little to choose between the two top-flight rivals.
Slade saw a third shot at the target drift wide, before a wonderful turnover from the returning Dave Ewers helped glean the visitors another golden opportunity with just a minute remaining of the half.
With the penalty punted to within sniffing distance of the Bath line, the Chiefs looked to work their magic again with a close-range maul just five metres out. Bath, though, knew what was coming and to a man defended as though their very existence was at stake.
HALF TIME BATH RUGBY 10 EXETER CHIEFS 6
As the temperature continued to plummet during the interval, the Chiefs resumed for the second half no doubt warmed by a few home truths from Baxter and his fellow coaches.
Whatever was said, it clearly had the desired effect as the Devonians were quickly on the front foot, winning a clutch of early penalties that allowed them to set-up camp deep behind enemy lines.
Unlike the first half where the maul didn’t get its just rewards, this time they used the set-piece to eek their way to a metre or so out, the fruits of which were finished off by Iosefa-Scott, who was able to claim his maiden score for the club. Slade converted and all of a sudden the Chiefs were in front for the first time on the night.
Exeter’s lead would last just a matter of minutes as young playmaker Bailey restored parity with a second penalty.
Both sides turned to their benches to help reinvigorate their pursuit of points, but it was the Chiefs who had the next chance, only for Slade to pull his penalty chance wide of the left post.
Bailey had no such problem at the other end, when he was able to drill over a third penalty, this after a lung-busting passage of play in which both sides threw everything at one another.
With the Chiefs getting frustrated by the gamesmanship antics of the hosts, they knew time was fast running out in their quest for victory. Sam Simmonds was held up over the line by a brilliant piece of defending from replacement Joe Simpson, whilst two kickable penalties were declined in search of greater reward.
It was a bold strategy from the Chiefs, but they sensed the moment was there for the taking. Indeed, they displayed their confidence by shunting the Bath pack off their own ball with a forward momentum that left many of the home pack wondering what had just hit them.
As the ball squirted out of the back, the Chiefs regathered possession and looked for all the money in the world to have scored once again. The officials were unsure as to what had happened, but following a quick conflab, it was deemed the ‘Men in White’ had been held just short.
Faced with a penalty right under the sticks, this was the ‘stick or twist’ moment for Baxter’s charges. They decided to twist, opting for a scrum. Again, they shoved with all their might, creating the opening for Simmonds to pick up and barge his way over.
The Chiefs coaches erupted like a volcano in the stands – and so did the hearty tribe of travelling support who had created pockets of noise around all four corners.
Joe Simmonds added the extras, before sealing the victory with a penalty.
It may not have been the prettiest of victories, but who cares. In the grand scheme of things, it was a vital pick-me-up for the Chiefs, who must now ready themselves for the visit of old adversaries Saracens at Sandy Park next Saturday.
Bath: T de Glanville, S Rokoduguni (R McConnochie 67), J Joseph, M Ojomoh, W Muir; O Bailey (D Cipriani 65), B Spencer (J Simpson 65); L Boyce (W Vaughan 72), T Dunn (J du Toit 67), W Stuart; J McNally, C Ewels (capt); M Reid (T Ellis 30), S Underhill, J Bayliss. Replacements (not used): D Rae, W Spencer.
Try – Reid; Conversion – Bailey; Penalties – Bailey (3)
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade, I Whitten (T Hendrickson 65), T O’Flaherty; H Skinner (J Simmonds 56), J Maunder (S Maunder 67); A Hepburn (B Moon 65), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 65), J Iosefa-Scott (H Williams 49); S Skinner, D Armand; D Ewers, J Kirsten, S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): R Tuima, R Capstick.
Tries – Iosefa-Scott, S Simmonds; Conversions – Slade, J Simmonds; Penalties – Slade (2), J Simmonds
Referee: M Carley