Chiefs 19 Bears 13
Exeter Chiefs 19
Bristol Bears 13
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
There was no New Year Hangover for Exeter Chiefs as they kicked off 2022 in style with victory over local rivals Bristol Bears at Sandy Park.
Rob Baxter’s side weren’t always at their sparkling best against their Westcountry neighbours, but they had enough about them to keep themselves firmly in the Gallagher Premiership’s play-off picture.
First half scores from Tom O’Flaherty and Jonny Hill helped them to a 12-3 lead at the break, before man-of-the-match Stuart Hogg put the finishing touches on their victory after Bristol replacement Henry Purdy had hauled his side back into contention midway through the second half.
The victory – Exeter’s seventh of the season so far – was just the tonic they needed having come unstuck in their pre-Christmas encounter away to Glasgow Warriors in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Time away with the family over a rare festive period off clearly had the desired effect for the Devonians, who showed two changes to their starting line-up from last time out. Up front, Jonny Gray’s absence meant fellow Scottish international Sam Skinner was shunted into the engine-room with Jannes Kirsten filling the void in the back-row.
The other change in personnel saw Ollie Devoto return in the centre for his first Exeter start since early November.
The Bears, meanwhile, made the short trek down the M5 looking to ignite their stuttering season. Pat Lam made three changes to his side that were downed in the dying embers of their home encounter against Leicester Tigers last time out.
It was, however, the Chiefs – playing in front of a record crowd of 14,100 at Sandy Park – who flew out of the traps. They dominated the early exchanges, setting a tone which continually asked questions of their counterparts.
Although the initial threat was repelled by the Bears, there was no stopping the Chiefs on 13 minutes as they claimed a wonderful opening score through O’Flaherty. The winger was the beneficiary of some stunning build-up play, involving the forwards first, before it was spun out wide to Jack Nowell, whose clever grubber kick was gobbled up by Hogg, who in turn drew in the cover before shipping the scoring pass to his back three team-mate.
Fly-half Joe Simmonds drilled over a sublime touchline conversion to give the Chiefs the perfect start to their afternoon’s work.
Bristol – to their credit – responded quickly and having seen one shot at the target go wide of the mark, Welsh international Sheedy made no mistake with his second effort, dissecting the posts at the North End after home prop Alec Hepburn had been penalised at scrum time by referee Luke Pearce.
It was one of several indiscretions awarded against the Chiefs front-row during the opening quarter, but once the message from the watching Exeter coaches had been conveyed pitch-side, it was the home pack which started to take control, both in the scrum and, particularly, against Bristol’s stuttering line-out.
Hogg came within a whisker of adding to the home tally, producing a clever chip-and-chase over the top, only to knock on under pressure with the Bristol try-line beckoning.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to probe and with their forwards producing a catalogue of heavyweight carries, so it was inevitable that they would add to their tally just past the half-hour mark.
Sustained pressure penned the Bears back behind their lines, before the final surge of raids ended in Hill powered over from close range for the home side’s second score.
Exeter could – and probably should – have added to their score just moments later, cutting apart the Bears defence once more with some crafty approach play only for Joe Simmonds’ sumptuous pass to the left to narrowly evade the hands of Sam Skinner.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 12 BRISTOL BEARS 3
The Chiefs were forced into change during the interval with O’Flaherty forced to withdraw with a head injury sustained in a hefty first half collision with Bears No.8 Nathan Hughes. Onto the field came the long-serving Ian Whitten, who was quickly thrust into the action on the restart.
Jack Maunder’s clever snipe off the back of a ruck had the Bears scrambling inside the opening two minutes, before a Simmonds cross-field kick narrowly failed to find Hogg, who had found space wide out on the right flank.
At the other end, Purdy – an early change for the dangerous Charles Piutau – threatened with a mazy run through the heart of the Exeter defence, but thankfully the Chiefs cover was there in numbers to repel the threat.
Bristol, though, were much improved from their first half showing and began themselves to put passages of play together. It was their best spell of the game and having won a kickable penalty, they opted for a kick to the left corner in search of greater reward.
Sadly, the tactic back-fired on them as the Chiefs turned over the ball within sniffing distance of their own line, before Maunder cleared down field with a lengthy box kick.
As both sides threw caution to the wind, throwing offloads left and right, it was from one particular passage of play that Slade came within a whisker of intercepting a Bristol pass on their own line.
Unfortunately, the England star’s best Superman impression saw him narrowly miss the ball, allowing opposite number Semi Radradra to break down field at pace. The Fijian ace propelled himself to halfway, only to be cut down by a brilliant cover tackle from Hogg.
Chances came and went for both sides before Purdy gambled out of the line, picking off a Simmonds pass to the right, before coasting in over half the length of the field to score under the posts for the visitors.
Now just two points adrift, there was every thought the Bears – who were behind on virtually every statistic in the game – could plunder a last-gasp victory.
The score, however, seemed to re-energise the Chiefs back into life and with time fast running out, they once more turned to their power game to punch them back to within sight of the Bristol line. Going right, then left, then back right again, the hosts did enough to work the opening for Hogg to cross for the converted score.
Sandy Park duly erupted, the wall of noise underlining just how important a moment it was in the context of the game.
The Chiefs were now home and dry, but it was the Bears who would have the final say, Sheedy’s late penalty ensuring them of a losing bonus point.
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade, O Devoto, T O'Flaherty (I Whitten h/t); J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Maunder 64); A Hepburn (B Moon 64), L Cowan-Dickie (capt, J Yeandle 61), S Nixon (J Iosefa-Scott 61); S Skinner (S Lonsdale 52), J Hill; D Ewers, J Kirsten (D Armand 74), S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): H Skinner
Tries – O’Flaherty, J Hill, Hogg; Conversions – J Simmonds (2)
Bears: C Piutau (H Purdy 25); L Morahan, S Radradra, S Bedlow (P O’Conor 64), I Lloyd (W Capon 77); C Sheedy, H Randall (A Uren 66); Y Thomas (J Woolmore 47), H Thacker, K Sinckler (J Afoa 47); J Joyce (capt), C Vui; F Harding, D Thomas (M Eadie 66), N Hughes (J Hawkins 47).
Try – Purdy; Conversion – Sheedy; Penalty – Sheedy
Referee: L Pearce