Bristol 10 Chiefs 12
Bristol Bears 10
Exeter Chiefs 12
Mark Stevens at Ashton Gate
When push came to shove, Exeter’s pack came together in unison to provide the power that has put them within touching distance of a semi-final place in this season’s Premiership Rugby Cup.
The Cup holders will have to wait at least a week to confirm whether they have advanced, but a third victory of the season against Bristol Bears has given them more than a fighting chance of advancing.
Only Newcastle Falcons - who face Sale Sharks next weekend in their final qualification fixture - can deny the Devonians, providing they pick up all five points and overturn a nine-point difference in points scored.
Ricky Pellow’s side, however, have done all they can and they must take great heart from a campaign so far which has once again the overall strength of the club’s playing squad.
Returning to Ashton Gate for the second time this season, the Chiefs made the short trek up the M5 looking to bounce back at the first attempt, having seen their Heineken Champions Cup aspirations for the season ended by Munster the week previous.
In what was a completely different starting XV to that which took to the field in Limerick, Pellow’s mix of youth and experience started brightly against a Bears outfit, which was virtually at full-strength and included two former All Blacks within their ranks.
Early pressure saw the Chiefs work their way through a string of attacking phases, before a penalty allowed them to kick for the right corner. Mitch Lees took the resultant set-piece from which the returning Dave Ewers peeled off on a charging run. Like an African rhino in full flight, the imposing back-row forward got to within sniffing distance of the white line, before his fellow forwards joined in.
The Bears did well to hold off the first couple of Exeter drives, before skipper for the day Holmes picked up and burrowed over from close range for the opening score, which sadly Harvey Skinner was unable to convert.
It was the perfect start for the Chiefs, who continued to boss both territory and possession during a keenly-contested first quarter, where line-speed and the battle at the breakdown were high on the agenda for both sides.
At the other end, Bristol winger Luke Morahan latched onto a fizzing pass in midfield, before drilling a grubber kick in behind the Chiefs defence. It set-up a sprint to the line amongst a clutch of players, but thankfully for the visitors it was Olly Woodburn, who was quickest to react as he slide over to cover the threat.
Moments later and Bristol had another chance to break their deadlock when Lees was pulled up for a high tackle on Bristol prop John Afoa. It offered Irish international Ian Madigan at shot at the target, but on this occasion his effort went awry and wide of the right post.
As half time approached, it was the Chiefs who got themselves back on the front foot. Turnover work deep inside their own 22 allowed Woodburn to clear down field with a lengthy kick, he raced after it a rate of knots eventually collaring opposite number Ryan Edwards just shy of his own try-line.
Somehow, the Bears survived as a plethora of Exeter players advanced on him. The danger, however, was far from over and the visitors looked to add to their tally, working their way through multiple attacking phases. To a man, the home side stood firm, eventually winning an all-important turnover of their own through flanker Dan Thomas.
The Bears faithful rejoiced at the Welshman’s actions - and they had further reason to cheer as with the final play of the half, they again dug deep into their defensive reserves to keep the Chiefs at bay.
HALF TIME BRISTOL BEARS 0 EXETER CHIEFS 5
With little to choose between the sides at the break, it was Pat Lam’s side who thundered out of the traps on the resumption.Just two minutes had elapsed when a smart combination play between Harry Randall and Madigan saw the latter pop the ball back on the inside to the onrushing Edwards.
Still with plenty to do, the jet-propelled flyer scorched his way through the heart of the Chiefs midfield, brushing off at least two tacklers along the way to score under the posts for the home side’s opening try, which Madigan converted untroubled.
The score clearly ignited the Bears, who thought they had extended their lead just four minutes later. Determined work up from the Bristol pack saw them punch their way into the Exeter 22, allowing hooker Harry Thacker to steal over from ten metres out.
Referee Luke Pearce was unsure of the validity of the score, opting for a review of play in the build-up.It was to prove a pivotal moment for the Chiefs as subsequent replays showed that Afoa had deliberately cut off Jack Innard’s attempt to stop his opposite number as he made his way towards the line.
Pearce chalked off the try, much to the derision of the home fans, but it was the correct call.
Exeter duly made the most of the let-off and turned to their bench for some fresh impetus heading into the final quarter. Replacements Billy Keast, Elvis Taione and Ollie Atkins all made significant impacts, particularly with their direct running, whilst young scrum-half Joe Snow could also be proud of his efforts, injecting real tempo into the Chiefs charge.
With momentum building for the visitors, so a number of penalties started to flow their way. As expected, a couple of them went to the corner for the tried-and-trusted line-out moves, before another award this time saw Holmes opt for a five-metre scrum.
Having dominated in this area for much of the contest, the Exeter eight came together as one to propel their counterparts back at a rate of knots. With Bristol bodies splintering out of the sides, referee Pearce had little option but to go under the sticks and award the penalty try.
Unlike the earlier meeting at the same venue, when the Chiefs won that day with a hotly disputed penalty try, this time their could be no complaints.
Back in front, Pellow’s side continued to go about their business with little concern.Indeed, they could have added to their tally just three minutes from time. However, a knock-on just inches from the whitewash denied them.
In the grand scheme of things, it mattered not.The Chiefs had emerged victorious, now all they have to do is play the waiting game!
Bears: L Daniels (C Sheedy 72); L Morahan, P O'Conor, T Pisi (co-capt, W Hurrell 60), R Edwards; I Madigan, H Randall (N Stirzaker 77); Jordan Lay (James Lay 37), H Thacker (T Lindsay 70), J Afoa (co-capt, L Thiede 70); J Hawkins (J Heenan 70), A Muldowney; C Vui, D Thomas, S Luatua. Replacement (not used): J Batley
Try - Edwards; Conversion - Madigan; Penalty - Madigan
Chiefs: P Dollman; A Cuthbert, M Bodilly, T Hendrickson, O Woodburn (J Short 77); H Skinner, S Maunder (J Snow 60); M Low (B Keast 53), J Innard (E Taione 60), G Holmes (capt, M Street 70); J Caulfield (O Atkins 48), M Lees; D Ewers, R Capstick, T Lawday (W Van der Sluys 70). Replacement (not used): S Morley.
Tries - Holmes, Penalty Try; Conversion - Penalty Try
Referee: L Pearce