Chiefs 14 Bristol 9
Exeter Chiefs 14
Bristol Bears 9
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs toasted their first game of the New Year with victory, but this was hardly vintage stuff from Rob Baxter’s side in a contest that lacked any real fizz.
Devon’s finest extended their lead at the top of this season’s Gallagher Premiership by seeing off local rivals Bristol Bears in a contest that is unlikely to live long in the memory bank of the capacity crowd that packed into Sandy Park.
The Chiefs bounced back from their loss at Northampton Saints last time out to edge out their nearest and dearest for a second time this season.
Santiago Cordero’s first half touchdown, plus a first-ever Premiership try for Sean Lonsdale, were the high points in a dogged, yet often error-ridden display from the league leaders, who will now switch their attentions from domestic matters to that of two crunch encounters in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Baxter knows his side will need to play much better than they did in their derby tussle, but this ugly win – whilst those around them at the summit all lost – mean they will head into European battle as English rugby’s leading light after 12 rounds of battle.
The Bears – who have still to beat the Chiefs in any shape or form going back beyond 2010 – countered with three penalties from Irish international Ian Madigan, but that was their only real reward in a contest in which defences often ruled the roost.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter recalled Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Dennis and Jonny Hill to the home pack, while behind there were starts for Henry Slade in the centre and Phil Dollman at full-back.
Meanwhile, the Bears – fresh from seeing off Newcastle Falcons last time out – made six changes in personnel for their short trip down the M5. Hooker Tom Lindsay made his first Premiership start for the club, alongside props Jake Woolmore and Lewis Thiede.
Former Chief Ed Holmes formed a new second row pairing alongside Joy Joyce, while Jack Lam was brought into the Bristol back-row with Steven Luatua ruled out with a dead leg. Behind, the back division remained unchanged, that was until just before kick-off when star full-back Charles Piutau was ruled out with a hamstring injury, thrusting Piers O’Conor into the starting XV from the bench.
The late change did little to hinder the visitors, who started the contest brightly. Early pressure saw they throw a series of attacking phases at the Chiefs, but the home defence held firm under the pressure.
The Bears, though, continued to pile forward in numbers and when Matt Kvesic was penalized by referee Craig Maxwell-Keys for infringing just metres from his own try-line, it offered fly-half Madigan the chance to open the scoring with a routine penalty.
With neither side willing to give an inch at the breakdown, the contest remained as tight as ever. However, when play did finally break out, not the Chiefs or the Bears could really capitalise as a string of unforced errors curtailed any real flow to the game.
The plethora of handling errors meant there were countless scrums, particularly during the opening half, meaning that the contest never really got going to any great shakes.
Kvesic and Cowan-Dickie led one particularly raid midway through the half, but just as it looked like the hosts were set to strike, England international Ben Moon knocked on just inches from the Bristol try-line.
It kind of summed up the frustrations of what was a pretty turgid first half. That said, as half time approached, it was the Chiefs who found themselves on the front foot. Decent carries from Hill and Ian Whitten got them deep within the Bristol 22 – and when the Bears infringed just inches from their own line, Baxter’s side made them pay as they used the advantage to feed Slade, whose long, looping pass to the right found Cordero, who did the rest with a simply finish. Gareth Steenson converted with the final kick of the half to give his side a narrow lead at the turn.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 BRISTOL BEARS 3
On the resumption it was the Chiefs who set the early attacking tone, this despite the Bears making a trio of early changes at the break, including bringing into the fold the experienced pairing of John Afoa and George Smith.
Despite bossing those early exchanges, the Chiefs could not add to their tally and they were made to pay when Bristol countered at the other end. With a scrum midway inside the home half, it was England prop Harry Williams who was adjudged to have dropped the set-piece, allowing Madigan to land his second shot of the day at the target.
Just a point behind, it was the Bears who had the bit between their teeth and when a high, hanging kick caused indecision between Dollman and Cordero, the Chiefs didn’t react accordingly, gifting an offside penalty that Madigan was able to dispatch to put his side back in front.
Baxter turned to his bench to re-ignite the charge, drafting in Aussie Nic White at scrum-half and Joe Simmonds for Steenson at fly-half. The duo were quickly in the groove and helped to finally get the Chiefs back division moving through the gears.
Kvesic and the impressive Hill helped to lead the charge, before White himself sniped off one ruck to get himself within sniffing distance of the line. Referee Maxwell-Keys had seen the Bears infringe and the Chiefs were awarded a penalty.
Unlike many of their rivals, the Chiefs opted not to go for posts, instead turning their attentions to kicking for the corner and hunting down a greater bounty. The first line-out drive was set up well, only to be illegally thwarted by the visitors.
The second, again taken by Hill in the centre, had an initial shove, but this time the Chiefs were forced to go wide to the right. They worked their way through a catalogue of phases, the fruits of which eventually resulted in a maiden top-flight try for Lonsdale. Simmonds obliged with the extras and the Chiefs were now five points clear.
Back in front, the Chiefs looked to flex their attacking muscles further. Ollie Devoto’s sprightly counter saw him attack from his own 22, before releasing Tom O’Flaherty down the left flank. However, it took a superb cover tackle from Bristol’s Luke Morahan to deny the Exeter flyer from adding a third try.
With time all but up, the Bears did their best to try and find a knockout blow – similar to that in which the Chiefs inflicted on them back in November – but it was to no avail as Exeter held firm with some dominant defensive sets.
League matters now takes a break until mid-February when they Chiefs travel to Castle Grim to face Gloucester. Before then, it’s crunch dates against Castres and Munster that will occupy the thought of Baxter, his players and, of course, the famous Exeter Tribe.
Chiefs: P Dollman; S Cordero, H Slade, I Whitten (O Devoto 67), T O’Flaherty; G Steenson (capt, J Simmonds 56), J Maunder (N White 51); B Moon (A Hepburn 49), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 49), H Williams (T Francis 49); D Dennis (M Lees 56), J Hill; S Skinner, S Lonsdale, M Kvesic. Replacement (not used): W Van der Sluys.
Tries - Cordero, Lonsdale; Conversions - Steenson, J Simmonds
Bristol: P O'Conor; L Morahan, W Hurrell, S Piutau (co-capt, M Protheroe 63), T Pincus; I Madigan (C Sheedy 68), H Randall (A Uren 74); J Woolmore (Y Thomas h/t), T Lindsay (H Thacker h/t), L Thiede (J Afoa 28); E Holmes, J Joyce; C Vui, J Lam (D Thomas 24), J Crane (co-capt, G Smith 43).
Penalties - Madigan (3)
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys