Bears 22 Chiefs 25
Bristol Bears 22
Exeter Chiefs 25
Mark Stevens at Ashton Gate
Exeter’s young pride showed the future looks promising as the Chiefs stretched their lead at the top of the Gallagher Premiership with a priceless victory against nearest rivals Bristol Bears.
For a third game in a row, this battle of Westcountry foes served up more last-gasp drama, as this time a converted try two minutes from time by replacement prop Billy Keast saw Rob Baxter’s side claim the bounty.
Until that point, it looked for all love and money that the Bears would be cutting Exeter’s lead at the top of the table, thanks in the main to second half tries from Piers O’Conor, Luke Morahan and Ioan Lloyd.
This Chiefs squad, however, are a relentless outfit. Everyone knows their role and the duties they have to perform. First half tries from Phil Dollman and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne helped the visitors establish a 15-3 lead at the turn, only for the Bears to come storming back in the second half.
Thankfully, the laser-guided boot of Gareth Steenson continues to shine bright and with another ten points to add to his record-breaking tally, it meant the visitors were always in touch until Keast struck late on.
Fresh from victories over Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks, the Chiefs made the short trek up the M5 with a much-changed line-up for this eagerly anticipated clash between the division’s top two sides. Of those who started against the Sharks, only winger Olly Woodburn remained in situ from the outset at Ashton Gate
It meant Baxter gave a first Chiefs start to Scottish international Sam Hidalgo-Clyne at scrum-half - and there was also a full Premiership debut at full-back for fellow newcomer Josh Hodge. Helping supplement the new duo were told more familiar faces, Steenson and Dollman, both survivors of the old Championship days.
Bristol, like the Chiefs, had also collected two bonus points wins since restart and they assembled a powerful line-up, which included star attractions Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau in the back division and England duo Kyle Sinckler and Nathan Hughes up front.
As expected, the early exchanges certainly set the tone for the contest. Both sides were throwing themselves into a plethora of heavyweight collisions, all of which were being masterfully soaked up by some resolute defence from the respective rivals.
It was, however, the Chiefs - aided by a strong wind at their backs - who started to find their rhythm. They used their forwards predominantly to dent holes in the Bears rearguard, before the ball was spun out to the likes of Woodburn, Tom O’Flaherty and Tom Hendrickson, who was looking particularly lively in the Exeter midfield.
Eventually, the visiting pressure paid dividends on 14 minutes when Hidalgo-Clyne picked from the base of the scrum, skipped inside before releasing the evergreen Dollman, who picked a wonderful line behind the dummy run of Hendrickson to skip round opposite number Radradra and over the whitewash for the game’s opening try, converted by the trusty boot of Steenson.
Certainly, it was a moment to savour for the long-serving Welshman, who next season will be plying his rugby trade with Sidmouth RFC in South West One.
The Chiefs, though, were up and running and they further reason to cheer just minutes later when they added a second try. Again, the scrum was the launchpad, Hidalgo-Clyne spotting a ‘two on one’ on the blindside and linking cleverly with Woodburn to score in the left corner.
Although Steenson drifted the testing touchline conversion wide of the far post, the master marksman made no mistake when he was gifted another shot at the target five minutes before the break, plundering a routine penalty from in front of the posts to stretch Exeter’s lead out to 15-0.
Dollman could easily have claimed another score in the build-up to the penalty, but it was all Exeter at this stage and the Bears needed to summon a response of sorts fast.
That they did with arguably their best spell of pressure for the half. Sheedy nabbed their opening points with a penalty after the Chiefs had infringed at a ruck on their edge of their 22 - and it took a brilliant cover tackle from O’Flaherty to deny O’Conor a try after he had been released at speed by the ever-improving Radradra.
Thankfully, the Chiefs held firm under the mounting pressure and went into the break with a comfortable 12-point cushion to defend.
HALF TIME BRISTOL BEARS 3 EXETER CHIEFS 15
Bristol’s threat had been evident in the dying embers of that first half and on the resumption they were quickly into their stride. The home pack did the initial donkey work to win a penalty but, surprisingly, Sheedy could not land the straight-forward kick, cannoning his effort back off the left post.
It was a let-off for the Chiefs, but the Bears continued to push forward in numbers and they hit their Westcountry rivals with a quick-fire try double. O’Conor claimed the first, rounding off a slick handling to the left of the Exeter post, before the hosts exploited the numbers game wide on the right flank to send Morahan over for the score.
The Australian’s effort had restored parity on the scoreboard, but with Sheedy slotting the resultant conversion, the Bears were finally in front for the first time in the contest.
Bristol’s powerful offensive had been mightily impressive, but the Chiefs - aided by a string of fresh faces from the bench, including debutant Joe Snow - responded valiantly.
Just like they had done in the opening 40, the forwards started to carry hard, creating the perfect platform to release the likes of O’Flaherty, whose latest burst saw him again wreak havoc within the Bristol 22. Although he was marshalled to the deck by some solid Bears defence, the ball was worked back inside to Richard Capstick, who despite being swamped by at least three home tacklers, he was prevented from presenting the ball by some over zealous defending.
Steenson, as so often he has done in his career, potted over the penalty and the Chiefs were back in front by the smallest of margins.
As the game edged into the final ten minutes, it was Bristol who re-asserted their grip on proceedings. Raising the tempo and working the ball from one side of the field to the other, the Chiefs were holding firm until replacement Lloyd sniped round the back of their attacking line, brushing off the attentions of Woodburn and Snow to score in the corner.
History tells us, though, that Premiership games between these two local rivals tend to go right to the wire. Last season the Chiefs edged a thriller with a last-gasp penalty try, before the Bears gained their revenge back in November when Dan Thomas’ converted score edged Pat Lam’s side to a 20-17 victory.
Today was to be no different as the Chiefs - with one last throw of the dice - did it again. Using a succession of close-range penalties, they edged their way towards the victory line. Jack Innard led the charge, but it was the support cast behind him who did the rest, eventually Cornishman Keast claiming his first-ever Premiership try to restore Exeter’s lead.
Steenson used much of the the necessary minute to kill the clock as best he could, after which he drilled over the additional extras, sparking scenes of delight both in the visiting dug-out, but also amongst Exeter’s coaching clan sat high in the Lansdown Stand.
Sheedy restarted proceedings, looking to find at least one of his team-mates on the charge. However, the Chiefs gobbled up possession and masterfully work the clock to conclusion. Steenson drilled the ball to the empty stand, punching the air in delight as he did so.
It was somewhat reminiscent of 2010 when, again on a wet and wild midweek night in Bristol, Baxter’s side headed back down the road with a priceless victory.
Bears: C Piutau (I Lloyd61); L Morahan, S Radradra, P O’Conor, H Purdy (A Leiua 50); C Sheedy, H Randall (A Uren 37); M Lahiff (J Woolmore 35), B Byrne (H Thacker 50), K Sinckler (Y Thomas 75); E Holmes, D Attwood (J Joyce 72); S Luatua (capt) D Thomas, N Hughes (B Earl 50).
Tries - O’Conor, Morahan, Lloyd; Conversions - Sheedy (2); Penalty - Sheedy
Chiefs: J Hodge, T O’Flaherty, P Dollman (T Wyatt 50), T Hendrickson, O Woodburn (H Skinner 72); G Steenson, S Hidalgo-Clyne (J Snow 62); A Hepburn (B Keast 62), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 62), T Francis (M Street 62); D Dennis (W Witty 46), S Skinner; J Kirsten, D Armand (R Capstick 50), S Lonsdale.
Tries - Dollman, Hidalgo-Clyne, Keast; Conversions - Steenson (2); Penalties - Steenson (2)
Referee: W Barnes