Bears 19 Braves 36
Bristol Bears 19
Exeter Braves 36
Mark Stevens at Lockleaze Sports Ground
Exeter Braves booked themselves a place in the last four of this season’s Premiership Rugby Shield with this six-try victory over local rivals Bristol Bears.
Ricky Pellow’s side maintained their position at the top of the Southern Conference after they collected their eighth win of the season with another solid display on the road.
Sam Maunder, Greg Holmes, Tom O’Flaherty and Onehunga Kaufusi all grabbed first half tries for the visitors, before Phil Dollman and Harry Strong got it on the scoring act after the break.Fly-half Harvey Skinner kicked the remainder of Exeter’s points.
In reply, Charlie Powell, Reiss Cullen and Tiff Eden all scored tries for the Bears, two of which were converted by Eden, but it was never enough to really trouble the Braves, who know victory over Saracens in their final group fixture on Easter Monday will guarantee them home advantage in the semi-finals.
Fresh from an impressive victory over Harlequins on Monday night, Pellow stuck with a largely unchanged line-up for the short trip up the M5.The Exeter back division remained unchanged, whilst upfront Jack Innard, Josh Caulfield, Lewis Pearson and James McRae were all added to the visiting pack.
Bristol, undone narrowly by Gloucester in their last outing, paraded a mix of youth and experience from the outset.They were headed up by former Chief Aly Muldowney up front, while behind Aussie Nic Stirzaker provided the link role alongside fly-half Eden.
It was the Braves, though, who exploded out of the traps on the 4G surface at the impressive Lockleaze Sports Ground. Just four minutes had elapsed when they claimed their first try of the game, Maunder gliding over the line following some excellent approach work from livewire winger O’Flaherty.
Skinner banged over the conversion for that score, but was narrowly wide when the Braves added their second score just five minutes later. This time it was the Exeter pack who did the damage, driving their way to within sniffing distance of the line, allowing Aussie international Holmes to drive over from just a few yards out.
It was proving one-way traffic during the opening quarter and it came as no surprise when the visitors extended their lead with a third touchdown.O’Flaherty the scorer on this occasion, barging his way through two tacklers to make it 17-0.
Up against it, Bristol quickly needed to summon a response of sorts. To their credit, they did just that after a sustained spell of home pressure. Having positioned themselves midway inside the Braves half, they worked the ball from right to left, finding centre Powell who powered his way through the heart of the Exeter midfield to score under the posts. Eden added the extras for a maximum reward.
The score ignited the Bears and for the next five minutes they continued to cause problems for the Braves, who leaked a second try when Capon was able to latch onto a pass in centre field before shipping the ball left to winger Cullen, who applied a powerful finish in the left corner.
Thankfully, that was all Bristol could muster in terms of a first half response and it was the visitors who claimed the bonus point on the stroke of half time when strong running from McRae saw him shake off a couple of defenders before feeding Kaufusi to coast over.Skinner was on hand to land the conversion with the last kick of the half.
HALF TIME BRISTOL BEARS 12 EXETER BRAVES 24
Just as they had done in the first half, the Braves were quickly into their stride on the resumption. Centre Max Bodilly went close with an initial raid, but when Bristol cleared the threat, back roared the visitors as some neat footwork from Hendrickson saw him burst clear through the middle before feeding Dollman for a simple score, converted by Skinner.
To their credit, the Bears again responded, cutting the deficit when Stirzacker sniped off the back of a ruck before offloading to Eden, who was able to scorch through at a rate of knots and dot down for a score he also converted.
As the half continued to tick by, both sides took the opportunity to run their benches, meaning the contest became somewhat fragmented during the third quarter. However, it was the Braves who extended their lead on 67 minutes.
Working their way up field with some solid carrying, the attack appeared to be over until it came out to Skinner, who produced a stunning behind the back pass that created the opening for replacement Strong to power over in the right-hand corner.
Strong’s score gave the Braves a healthy cushion as the game entered into it’s dying embers, but it was Bristol who finished the game the stronger, laying siege on the Exeter line with a succession of attacking waves. The Braves, though, were putting up a defiant stance in defence, knocking their rivals back with a number of bone-crunching hits.
In the end, the Bears were left to live off scraps and when the final scrum was turned over by the Braves, who had earlier reinforced their front-row options through Moray Low, Elvis Taione and Marcus Street, all that was left for the visitors to do was to hack the ball dead, prompting referee Greg MacDonald to blast out the final whistle.
Bristol Bears: M McNab; T Fricker, C Powell, H Ascherl (J Wright 55), R Cullen; T Eden, N Stirzaker (capt); Y Thomas (J Lay 55), G Kloska, J Armstrong (S Faletau 58); J Batley, A Muldowney; S Jeffries (E Ehizode h/t, E Evans 55), J Capon, S Graham. Replacements (not used): B Stretch, E Evans, D Thurston, F Murphy.
Tries - Powell, Cullen, Eden; Conversions - Eden (2)
Exeter Braves: P Dollman (C Davies 67); J Short, M Bodilly, T Hendrickson, T O’Flaherty (H Strong 58); H Skinner, S Maunder (J Snow 60); B Keast (M Low 52), J Innard (E Taione 52), G Holmes (capt, M Street 52); J Caulfield, L Pearson; J McRae (J Clemson 45), O Kaufusi (P Schroter 73), T Lawday.
Tries - S Maunder, Holmes, O’Flaherty, Kaufusi, Dollman, Strong; Conversions - H Skinner (3)
Referee: G MacDonald