Chiefs 17 Tigers 22
Exeter Chiefs 17
Leicester Tigers 22
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter’s play-off aspirations were tough enough even before this encounter, but defeat for the Chiefs against the current Gallagher Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers has left them with a mountain to climb between now and the end of the season.
Rob Baxter’s side battled back valiantly to claim an all-important losing bonus point, but by then the real damage had been done, much of it self-inflicted by some poor discipline, woeful execution and, most crucially, some gift-wrapped points for their rivals.
Sure, the Tigers offered a creditable threat and led 12-0 at the break thanks to tries from Chris Ashton and Freddie Steward, one of which was converted by centre Dan Kelly. However, it was more of Exeter’s own failings which hampered their cause.
When another unforced error allowed Ashton to run in for his second of the game early in the second half, things looked remarkably bleak for the Devonians, who were looking to use this encounter to bounce back from their loss at Worcester last time out.
To their credit, the Chiefs showed their fighting spirit, reducing the arrears initially with converted scores for Dave Ewers and Patrick Schickerling, before skipper Joe Simmonds set up a grandstand finale with a successful penalty late on.
Try as they may, the hosts looked to press one final time in the dying embers, but met with fierce resistance from the Tigers their final attacking flourish fizzled into thin air and it was the Midlanders who headed back up the road with the points and a play-off place secured with a handful of games remaining.
With conditions glorious on Mothering Sunday, Baxter was able to parade a powerful looking line-up for this latest home engagement. Buoyed by the return of international trio Jonny Gray, Sam Simmonds and Henry Slade following their exertions in the recent Six Nations, hopes were high that the Chiefs could boost their play-off push on home soil.
Leicester, though, were themselves able to welcome back their own glut of star names, including skipper Ellis Genge, Ben Youngs, George Ford and Steward, and it was the visitors who set the early tone, making the most of a string of early penalty concessions from the Chiefs to position themselves behind enemy lines.
Declining easily kickable penalties in search of greater reward, the early pressure came entirely from the visitors who were happy to use their pack to do the donkey work, before the ball was worked out to the likes of Nemani Nadolo, the former Chief, who was used as Leicester’s laser-guided strike runner.
The Chiefs happily soaked up the early pressure, but when the visitors went wide off a penalty advantage, Youngs fed Ford, whose sublime cross-field kick was gobbled up by Ashton, who was able to dot down without too much fuss with just seven minutes on the clock.
Hardly the start the home side would have craved, they looked to respond almost immediately. Strong carries from the industrious African duo of Dave Ewers and Jacques Vermeulen gave them front foot ball - from which Sam Maunder took up the charge with a lightning snipe from the base of a ruck. However, as he tore towards the try-line, the Chiefs coughed up a needless penalty, allowing the Tigers to clear the danger.
Vermeulen threatened again just moments later, trying to sneak up the blindside of a five-metre line-out, but as he looked to find the final few yards to the whitewash, he was bulldozed into touch by a collection of Tigers defenders.
The South African flanker was certainly at the heart of Exeter’s early endeavour, but midway through the opening half he was sent to the sidelines for a ten-minute stint, referee Luke Pearce adjudging his deliberate knock-on was worthy of greater sanction than just a penalty, issuing him a yellow card for his slap down of Nadolo’s intended pass back inside.
Down a man, down on the scoreboard, the Chiefs had it all to do as the Tigers looked to make the most of their numerical advantage. For the best part of Vermeulen’s stint in the cooler, his team-mates played their part, defending for their lives and showing a physicality that showed they weren’t willing to give an inch.
However, as half time approached, the Tigers pressed once more. Indeed, when Youngs dinked a kick into ‘no mans land’ deep inside the Chiefs 22, it looked as though Olly Woodburn had read the play perfectly, covering across to lap up the loose ball. Unfortunately for the Chiefs man, the ball took a wicked bounce of the rock-hard surface, it flat-footed the home winger and there was Steward to gleefully claim possession and score by the posts, Kelly converting.
It was somewhat rough on the Chiefs, but kind of summed up their afternoon. Undeterred, they continued to work hard and when they won two quick fire penalties late in the half, the Sandy Park crowd sensed this could be the moment for them to strike back on the scoreboard. Joe Simmonds declined the shot at goal, instead going for a kick to the corner. The initial thrust was halted, albeit illegally by the visitors, and when the Chiefs tried again from a tap penalty, Ewers was adjudged to have been held up on the line with the last move of the half.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 0 LEICESTER TIGERS 12
It was the first time in four-and-a-half years that the Chiefs had gone in at half time without a point to their name. However, they re-emerged for the second half determined to get themselves back into the contest at the earliest opportunity.
From the outset, they quickly set the attacking tone, looking to use their pacy backs to try and unzip what was proving a watertight Leicester defence to that point.
With ball in hand, they launched the latest offensive, going from right to left at a rate of knots. The ball was cleverly worked out to Ian Whitten who, with two men outside of him, looked to offload into space. Sadly, his fellow runners had run ahead of him in the attacking line, he was forced to offload, firing a pass in behind both men.
Again, the Tigers made the most of the gift, Ashton picking up the ball and outpacing two home defenders to cross the line for his 92nd top-flight try. It meant the experienced winger had drawn level in the scoring charts with Tom Varndell, himself a former Tigers favourite.
Somehow the Chiefs were 19-0 adrift and searching for answers. Nothing they appeared to be doing was sticking and it was proving hugely frustrating for players, coaches and supporters alike.
There cause, though, was aided on 51 minutes when Nadolo was yellow-carded for a carbon copy of Vermeulen’s offence in the first half. Now, it was the turn of the Chiefs to make the most of the advantage, taking just four minutes to bag their first points of the afternoon.
The hulking frame of Ewers got the hosts back into the game, the Zimbabwean-born forward burrowing his way over from close range to end a period of sustained pressure from the home side.
But no sooner had the Chiefs given themselves a lifeline back into the game, the Tigers bit back, Freddie Burns stroking them back into a 15-point lead with a penalty after Sam Simmonds had been pulled up for not rolling away from the tackle area.
Baxter threw on fresh faces in a bid to ignite some life into his side’s charge. The tactic was a clever one and with the young props of Billy Keast and Schickerling helping to steady the home scrum, they were at last able to glean some much-needed territory and possession.
Scottish international Gray was adjudged to have been held up on the line following another prolonged passage of play from the home side, before Schickerling barged his way over for Exeter’s second converted try, just eight minutes from time.
Now with the bit between their teeth and the Sandy Park volume levels lifted a couple of decibels, the Chiefs threw caution to the wind in the final throws of the contest. Joe Simmonds slotted a decent penalty to bring the home side back within bonus point range, before Baxter’s side decided to have another crack at a potential late score.
Pinned into their own 22 late on, the Chiefs worked their way through 20+ phases of possession, but each time they were met by a miserly Tigers rearguard action that had all the hallmarks of defence coach Kevin Sinfield written all over it. Instead of moving forward, the hosts lost yards, eventually resulting in them being swallowed up on their own line in the final action of the game.
As the Tigers celebrated a first win in over seven years in Devon, the Chiefs were left to reflect on what might have been. For them, they must now regroup for next weekend’s derby day tussle with Bath.
That game is now a ‘must-win’ as is all their others this season, but even then they might not be enough in their quest to try and return to HQ.
Chiefs: J Hodge (F Cordero 56); O Woodburn (H Skinner 79), H Slade, I Whitten, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), S Maunder (J Maunder 59); A Hepburn (B Keast 51), J Innard (J Yeandle 47), H Williams (P Schickerling 51); R Capstick, J Gray; D Ewers, J Vermeulen (S Grondona 73), S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): W Witty.
Try - Ewers, Schickerling; Conversion - J Simmonds (2); Penalty - J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Vermeulen
Tigers: F Steward; C Ashton, G Porter, D Kelly, N Nadolo (M Moroni 73); G Ford (F Burns 33), B Youngs (J van Portvliet 56); E Genge (capt, J Whitcombe 73), J Montoya (N Dolly 76), J Heyes (N Leatigaga 73); H Wells (T Reffen 56), E Snyman (C Green 49); O Chessum, H Liebenberg, J Wiese.
Tries - Ashton (2), Steward; Conversions - Kelly, Burns; Penalty - Burns
Yellow Card: Nadolo
Referee: L Pearce