Chiefs 17 Bears 20
Exeter Chiefs 17
Bristol Bears 20
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Last season it was Bristol Bears who were undone at the death, picked off by the Exeter Chiefs in a sterling second half fightback at Ashton Gate.
Fast forward the clock to this afternoon and it was the Devonians who were left to 'suck it up', Pat Lam's visitors recording a first-ever Gallagher Premiership victory over their Westcountry rivals to move to the top of the table.
Dan Thomas' converted try - with the last play of the match - not only floored the Chiefs with time up on the clock, but capped an incredible fightback from the visitors, who had trailed 17-0 at the break.
Earlier, Rob Baxter's side had dominated the first-half exchanges, claiming converted tries through Sam Simmonds and Nic White, alongside a penalty from fly-half Joe Simmonds.
The second period, however, belonged to the Bears, who having clawed their way back into the contest courtesy of two Callum Sheedy penalties, then set up a grandstand finale when winger Piers O'Conor raced over for their opening try just past the hour mark.
Now with the momentum - and the Chiefs guilty of coughing up easy territory and possession - it was the visitors who pounced late on, using a well-crafted line-out move to propel replacement Thomas over the line for his match-winning score.
Even then, referee Karl Dickson wasn't sure of the validity of the score, but following a lengthy conflab with TV match official Keith Lewis, which included numerous viewings of the final play, the score was awarded and the Chiefs were left to reflect on a disappointing second half display.
With the Rugby World Cup done and dusted, Baxter wasted little time in recalling his England stars to club duty. Slade was brought back in at centre, while on the bench Cornish duo Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell were also included.
Elsewhere, Aussie international White made his first start of the new season, Jannes Kirsten and Sam Simmonds were recalled to the pack, whilst there was a first Sandy Park start for summer signing Stuart Hogg.
The Bears, meanwhile, made three changes in personnel to their side which defeated Sale Sharks at home the previous week. Into the side came Harry Thacker in the pack, whilst behind Harry Randall was afforded his first start of the campaign with Will Hurrell added to the midfield alongside the experienced Siale Piutau.
Ahead of kick-off, Sandy Park fell silent as part of the club’s Remembrance Day Service, after which the noise levels were cranked up to maximum in all four corners for this much-anticipated Westcountry derby.
From the outset, though, it was the home side who were quickly into their stride. Building on last weekend’s win at Worcester Warriors, they set the attacking tone, pinning down the Bears with a heavy onslaught early on.
The returning Slade was denied a try on 11 minutes when the officials deemed Alec Hepburn had knocked on in the build-up, but the wait for the opening score was not long in coming as the Chiefs rumbled over just four minutes later.
Slade was the architect on this occasion, his hitch-kick deep inside the Bristol 22 creating the opening from which the hosts were able to work the ball through the hands of Jonny Hill and skipper Jack Yeandle, whose pass left fed Sam Simmonds to cross in the corner.
Brother Joe ensured it was a maximum haul as he drilled over the resultant conversion and he was on hand to add the extras to Exeter’s second score, which arrived on 22 minutes.
Fielding possession midway inside their own half, Sam Simmonds fed Slade, his cat-flap pass to the right found Hogg, who drew the cover before releasing Tom O’Flaherty down the right. The winger made decent inroads into the Bears 22 before Simmonds and Kirsten took up the charge. With the Bears defence at seas, White spotted the gap to snipe over for the score.
It was dominant stuff from the Devonians, who were able to extend their lead just past the half-hour mark when Joe Simmonds slotted a routine penalty from in front of the posts after Yeandle was hit late off the ball by Dave Attwood.
As half-time approached, the Bears looked for a way back into the contest – and they were afforded a kickable penalty chance when No.8 Sam Simmonds was adjudged to have strayed offside in midfield. But rather than kick for goal, the visitors opted for a kick to the corner.
The tactic was certainly brave and bold, but it failed to yield reward as – not for the first time in the game – they were guilty of turning over possession with the try-line in sight.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 17 BRISTOL BEARS 0
The break brought a much-needed chance for the Bears to regroup – and on the resumption they were quickly into the stride, claiming their first points of the half when Sheedy plundered a lengthy penalty after White was adjudged to have deliberately knocked the ball on.
It was the spark the Bears have craved, but they were then forced to withstand a hard-hitting response from the Chiefs. A penalty kick deep into the Bristol 22 allowed them to set-up camp deep behind enemy lines, but as they looked poised to strike with one of their trademark pick-and-go moves, Baxter’s side were guilty of rushing matters and spilled the ball with the line in sight.
Moments later and they threatened again, a slick handling move saw the ball worked out along the Exeter backline to the lively Hogg, whose swift offload to fellow British & Irish Lion, Alex Cuthbert, appeared to set the winger on course for a score in the corner.
Sadly, the Welshman couldn't convert the effort as he would have hoped for, his trailing foot hitting the left touchline as he dived his way over in the corner.
Bristol not only breathed a huge sigh of relief, but used the let-off to get themselves back up field and on the offensive, O'Conor thumping Hogg across the sternum with a thunderous hit just inside the Chiefs half. Although Hogg did his best to keep possession alive, a clutch of Bristol defenders pounced on him, winning the penalty which Sheedy duly dispatched.
The ascendancy was, all of a sudden, now with the Bears, who were given extra impetus when Dickson yellow-carded White for a deliberate knock-on. In truth, it was a somewhat harsh call on the diminutive Aussie, who had leapt off the ground to try and pluck an intercept out of the air.
Bristol duly made the most of the chaos White's exit caused, using the numbers game to work an opening for Luke Morahan down the right flank. The Wallabies winger did well to evade a couple of home defenders, before he shipped the ball back inside to the onrushing O'Conor, who was able to glide in under the posts for the converted score.
Even then, the Chiefs were still in front - albeit their lead had been slashed to just four points - but they held the edge as the game entered into its dying embers.
However, instead of closing out the contest - like they have done so often in the past - Baxter's side were guilty of committing on-field hari-kari, the fruits of which resulted in a daft penalty that allowed the Bears to get themselves back down field.
Using the kick - and the resultant set-piece - Lam's side could not have delivered a better move, throwing all eight forwards - and a handful of backs - into a drive that the Chiefs sadly could not halt.
It was a move straight out of the Chiefs play book, but it proved decisive and ensured the Bears headed home with a priceless win.
Chiefs: S Hogg; T O’Flaherty, H Slade, S Hill (J Nowell 57), A Cuthbert; J Simmonds, N White (S Lonsdale 73); A Hepburn (B Keast 64), J Yeandle (capt, L Cowan-Dickie 54), H Williams (M Street 64); J Kirsten, J Hill; J Vermeulen (D Armand 60), M Kvesic (J Maunder 68), S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): G Steenson.
Tries – S Simmonds, White; Conversions – J Simmonds (2); Penalty – J Simmonds
Yellow Card: White
Bears: C Piutau (I Lloyd 69); L Morahan, W Hurrell (T Fricker 54), S Piutau, P O’Conor; C Sheedy, H Randall (A Uren 57); J Woolmore (Y Thomas), H Thacker (W Capon 70), J Afoa (L Thiede h/t); D Attwood (E Holmes 60), C Vui; S Luatua (capt), J Heenan (D Thomas h/t), N Hughes.
Tries – O’Conor, Thomas; Conversions – Sheedy (2); Penalties – Sheedy (2)
Referee: K Dickson