Bears 40 Chiefs 33
Bristol Bears 40
Exeter Chiefs 33
Mark Stevens at Ashton Gate
Exeter’s hopes of reaching the Gallagher Premiership play-offs for a seventh successive season are all but over after local rivals Bristol Bears inflicted defeat on them at Ashton Gate.
The two losing points the Chiefs collected on the night mean it’s not effectively over, but even Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, admitted something very strange will need to happen in the coming days for his side to stand any chance of being in the top four.
With three clubs (Northampton, Gloucester and Sale) all ahead of them in the race for the last remaining spot, two of them still with a game advantage, it’s all but curtains for the Devonians in their quest to reach Twickenham next month.
In truth, it’s been a season of frustration for Baxter and his players - and this latest outing merely underlined that very point. They scored five tries on the night to secure two points, but they also leaked six at the other end as the Bears rounded off their home campaign on a rousing note.
Charles Piutau was the scourge of the Chiefs all night, he scored two, as well as setting up at least another in a man of the match performance. Team-mates Callum Sheedy, Toby Fricker, Alapati Leiua and Luke Morahan also got in on the act to condemn Exeter to an 11th loss of the season.
First half scores from Santiago Grondona and Josh Hodge had ensured the two were level at the break - and even though the Chiefs added another three in the second half through James Kenny, Olly Woodburn and Dave Ewers, it was all in vain.
Back in action for the first time in weeks, Baxter made four changes to the side that lost last time out at Saracens. In the pack, there were returns for both Harry Williams and Ewers, while behind Simmonds was recalled at fly-half, allowing Henry Slade to revert back into the centre. The only other change saw Hodge start on the wing in place of Tom O’Flaherty.
The Bears, meanwhile, were virtually at full-strength and paraded a powerful line-up for this much-anticipated Westcountry derby. Piutau and Luke Morahan returned to the back-line, whilst there were a final swan song in Bears colours for the departing Leiua, Dave Attwood and John Afoa.
With conditions perfect at Ashton Gate, it was the Chiefs who set the early tone, quickly getting into their attacking stride against their nearest and dearest.
Although the visitors huffed and puffed, handling errors would prove costly, Slade’s earlier knock-on denying Scotland captain Stuart Hogg from opening the scoring when he slide over in the right corner on 11 minutes.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to push forward in numbers and when they were afforded another golden opportunity just moments later, it was stout defence from the Bears deep inside their own 22 that denied the Devonians on this occasion.
Threat averted, it was then the turns of the Bears to show their attacking claws. Indeed, with their first meaningful foray into Exeter territory, they broke the game’s deadlock midway through the first half.
Having won a maul penalty after Exeter captain Jack Yeandle had infringed, Harry Randall caught the visitors napping with a quick tap, he raced clear of the cover, before shipping a simple offload inside to Sheedy, who was able to charge in under the sticks for the try, which he also converted.
It was somewhat harsh on the Chiefs, particularly given they had dominated much of the first quarter, but they responded in fine fashion. Having seen Jacques Vermeulen come up just short from the latest forward thrust, they finally found their way over on 27 minutes.
The Exeter pack did the donkey work, pressing and probing just inches from the line, and eventually their efforts were rewarded when replacement Grondona - on for Jannes Kirsten - burrowed his way over for the converted score.
Up and running at last, the Chiefs hoped this would be the catalyst for them to kick on. Sadly, Bristol had other ideas and in another rare entry into the Exeter 22, they again made their rivals pay with a second score.
Piutau was the beneficiary on this occasion, the gifted full-back hot stepping his way in under the posts after the Bears had pulled in the Chiefs defence from a tap penalty.
Two attacks, two scores, it wasn’t exactly great watching for Baxter and his fellow coaches in the stands.
However, knowing their hopes of the play-offs existed on them responding, the visitors did what they know best. They dug in, they grafted and they scored, this time through Hodge.
Starting out on the left wing through the forwards, who drove hard and direct at their Bristol counterparts, the Bears were then picked off by a slick attack across the turf, the fruits of which saw Hodge skate over from a Hogg pass in the right corner. Simmonds converted to restore parity once again.
HALF TIME: BRISTOL BEARS 14 EXETER CHIEFS 14
With little to choose between the sides after a frantic first 40 minutes, it was the Chiefs who again came out firing on the resumption.
Hodge was the first to show, producing a chip-and-chase effort that just eluded the Exeter speedster in full flight. Sadly, as he attempted to dot down, he picked up an injury and was forced from the field just moments later.
Into the fold came Tom Hendrickson, meaning Ian Whitten was switched to the wing. And the the Northern Irishman thought he was the beneficiary of another slick Exeter attack, dotting down in the left-hand corner.
Referee Luke Pearce awarded the score initially, but intervention from the TMO to a late hit from Hendrickson on Piers O’Conor meant the score was not only ruled out, but the play was brought back deep into the Exeter half for a penalty.
Sheedy took charge of the resultant set-piece, drilling a kick deep inside the Chiefs 22. And although the Bears maul was held up, they cleverly worked their way into the centre of the field, whereby they were able to suck in the Exeter defenders, allowing Piutau to expose the numbers game right by the posts.
The Bristol natives rose to salute their superstar and just four minutes later they were on their feet again, this time rejoicing the bonus point score from Leiua, who was able to glide over after a sumptuous ‘cat-flap’ pass from Sheedy midway inside the Exeter half.
The Chiefs were reeling on their ropes, but to their credit they regathered themselves impressively. Making the most of a yellow card for Jack Bates, they struck back with a quick fire double that all of sudden had Bristol shaken.
Kenny was the first over, busting over from midway inside the Bears 22, before the Chiefs struck again - this time for the bonus point - when they picked off Bristol with a sublime cross-field attack that was eventually rewarded with Woodburn diving over in the corner.
Simmonds converted both, the second a beautifully executed kick from the right touchline, to bring the game back on level terms for a second time on the night.
With just 20 minutes to go, it really was all to play for. Again, though, the Chiefs would shoot themselves in the foot, this time Slade’s intended pass to the right was plucked out of the night sky by Fricker, who needed no second invitation to scamper in from halfway.
It was a hammer blow for the ‘Men in White’.
Bristol, on the other hand, made the most of the gift and for the remainder of the contest they ruled the roost as they cleverly soaked up any Exeter pressure that was thrown at them, before then executing their own vice-like grip on proceedings.
Happy to keep the ball under their control, the Bears prowled their way back down field, this time opening up the Chiefs defence with a well-executed move that allowed Morahan to slam the final nail into the Exeter coffin.
Celebrations were already in earnest amongst the home faithful, but the Chiefs did at least have the final say, Ewers finding his way over with the clock deep in the red for a second bonus point.
Just how important that additional point will ultimately be will come to light in the next few weeks. Twickenham maybe no more, but Champions Cup qualification is now the priority.
Bears: C Piutau; L Morahan, P O’Conor (J Bates 46), A Leuia, T Fricker; C Sheedy (I Lloyd 56), H Randall (A Uren 68); J Woolmore (J Benz-Salomon 75), H Thacker (B Byrne 48), J Afoa (J Armstrong 68); D Attwood (F Harding 53), J Joyce; C Vui, S Jefferies, S Luatua (capt, D Thomas 61).
Tries - Sheedy, Piutau (2), Leiua, Fricker, Morahan; Conversions - Sheedy (4), Lloyd
Yellow Card: Bates
Chiefs: S Hogg; O Woodburn, H Slade, I Whitten, J Hodge (T Hendrickson 43), J Simmonds, S Maunder (S Townsend 54); A Hepburn (J Kenny 54), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 54), H Williams (P Schickerling 54); J Gray, S Skinner; D Ewers, J Kirsten (S Grondona 22), J Vermeulen (D Jenkins 56). Replacement (not used): H Skinner
Tries - Grondona, Hodge, Kenny, Woodburn, Ewers; Conversions - J Simmonds (4)
Referee: L Pearce