Chiefs 19 Gloucester 27
Exeter Chiefs 19
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Strictly speaking, Exeter Chiefs have waltzed their way impressively to the top two of the Gallagher Premiership this season. Europe, on the other hand, remains a ‘work in progress’ as Rob Baxter’s side slipped to a second successive defeat at the hands of rivals Gloucester.
The visiting Cherry & Whites not only bolstered their own Pool 2 aspirations, but at the same time they gained sweet revenge for a 23-6 loss to Devon’s finest at the same venue just a fortnight ago.
Although they fell behind to an early Don Armand try – and again to Nic White’s converted score just a minute into the second half – Gloucester had too much, both individually and collectively, to silence the Chiefs, whose struggles in Europe’s top club competition remain a mystery.
So sure of themselves when it comes to domestic matters, it’s as if the Chiefs somehow morph into a different outfit when it comes to the Champions Cup. Quite why this is, remains a mystery, but it’s a conundrum that Baxter and his team will need to overcome if they are to reach their true potential.
In testing conditions, which had a mix as colourful as the rainbow that shone in the distance, it was Gloucester who adapted the brighter. Tries from Willi Heinz, Jaco Visagie and Ben Morgan paved the way for their victory, which was the first by a visiting side to Sandy Park since February, when Worcester Warriors headed back up the M5 having picked off the Chiefs in a low-scoring Premiership affair.
England internationals Danny Cipriani and Billy Twelvetrees completed the job for the visitors, who will now be looking to follow up their success with an equally impressive display on home soil this coming Friday when, you guessed it, the Chiefs arrived in town.
A week after surrendering their unbeaten tag in the Premiership to Harlequins, Baxter made a handful of changes to his starting line-up for this latest encounter. In the pack, Ben Moon and Sam Skinner, both fresh after their recent exertions in the Autumn internationals, returned to the fray, as did Gareth Steenson, Ollie Devoto, Henry Slade and Santiago Cordero.
Likewise, Gloucester also made changes to their winning formula from that which had seen off Worcester the week previous. Hooker Visagie made his first start for the club as one of three changes to the pack with Gerbrandt Grobler and Jake Polledri also added.
Behind them, Henry Trinder, Matt Banahan and Tom Hudson also came in from the outset, but their first real involvement was to try and halt a powerful opening assault from the Chiefs.
Devoto and Cordero led the charge, the latter with a fancy two-step that had Gloucester scrambling. However, as he was felled by a high shot, the Chiefs masterfully worked the ball wide to the left where Slade collected, threw a dummy, before popping a pass to Armand, who bulldozed his way to the line for the opening points of the game.
Given the dream start, the Chiefs continued to work their multi-phase game deep inside the Gloucester half. Continually asking questions, the visitors were doing well to stand up and fight under a barrage of home pressure. But just as it seemed the defensive walls were about the creak, former Gloucester player Matt Kvesic kicked away possession with the hosts firmly on the front foot.
Gloucester lapped up possession through man-of-the-moment Ollie Thorley, who headed north at a rate of knots. He was speeding his way towards the home line, only to be cut down by a last-gasp tackle from Alex Cuthbert. On his shoulder, though, was Heinz, who gleefully accepted the pop pass to dive over for the score.
Cipriani added the extras, albeit a little fortunately, before extending his side’s lead right on the stroke of half time with a penalty from in front of the Exeter posts, this after Moon had been adjudged to have dropped a knee at scrum time.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 5 GLOUCESTER 10
Now with the elements in their favour, it was hoped the Chiefs to kick-start their game plan into action on the resumption. Well, the second half was less than a minute old, when they did just that.
The Chiefs pack had done the donkey work with some hard carrying through the middle, off which White was able to spot a gap, snipe through a gap, and having just about enough grunt to force his way over the whitewash for a second Exeter score, which Steenson was this time able to convert.
In front once again, the natives were hoping it would prove the spark to ignite a real fire in the Chiefs attacking endeavours. Sadly, it did not materialise, Kvesic this time the offender for infringing at a ruck, allowing Cipriani the simplest of chances to put his team back in front.
The end-to-end nature of the contest showed no sign of abating as back roared the Chiefs. White again showed good tenacity to pick open the Gloucester defence and feed compatriot Greg Holmes. As the former Wallabies prop propelled himself towards the line, he coughed up possession and the visitors were able to clear the danger.
It was certainly a missed opportunity for the Chiefs – and one they were left to rue when Gloucester regrouped sufficiently, not only to force play back down field, but put themselves back on the front foot.
Playing with advantage after Baxter’s side were adjudged to have come offside, they went left, they went right, before the lively Thorley went on the burst. The Gloucester speedster made decent yardage into the Exeter 22, before the ball was recycled to the left where Visagie was waiting to squirm his way over. Cipriani slotted the conversion to put his side eight clear.
Again, Exeter looked to respond almost immediately, but with a mis-firing line-out and a catalogue of unforced errors creeping up, it was Gloucester who showed them how it should be done.
Opting to mimic one of Exeter’s greatest weapons – the short-range, pick-and-go – the visitors had again positioned themselves deep behind enemy lines. The Chiefs did well to repel a large percentage of what came at them, but when it was recycled through a final phase, it was Morgan who was able to find a way over for the score, converted by Twelvetrees.
The visiting bench celebrated as if Christmas had come early. Their joy, it has to be said, was merited. Their players had carried out the game plan to the letter, even though the Chiefs would have the final word.
A succession of late penalties allowed the home side to crawl their way back down field and into the Gloucester 22. With a line-out just five metres out, the Chiefs are pass-masters at what follows next. The set-piece was collected, the drive came on, and there was replacement Tom Lawday to drive over for a consolation score.
Unfortunately, the clock was against the Chiefs – who even though they huffed and puffed for the final minute, plus another four or five minutes added on – could not muster anything from what was ultimately a disappointing day at the office.
Baxter rightly praised the visitors for their efforts on the day, but also admitted questioned would be asked next week of his group, who need to rediscover their mojo which has gone awry these last few weeks.
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman, S Cordero, H Slade (I Whitten 50), O Devoto, A Cuthbert; G Steenson, N White (S Townsend 62, J Simmonds 67); B Moon (A Hepburn 50), J Yeandle (capt), G Holmes (T Francis 50); M Lees, D Dennis (O Atkins 62, E Taione 69); S Skinner, D Armand, M Kvesic (T Lawday 54).
Tries - Armand, White, Lawday; Conversions - Steenson (2)
Gloucester: T Hudson; M Banahan, H Trinder (J Woodward 80), O Williams, O Thorley; D Cipriani (B Twelvetrees 65), W Heinz (capt, C Braley 72); J Hohneck (A Saville 72), J Visagie (H Walker 72), F Balmain (C Knight 72); T Savage (E Slater 45), G Grobler; F Clarke, J Polledri (G Evans 65), B Morgan.
Tries - Heinz, Visagie, Morgan; Conversions - Cipriani (2), Twelvetrees; Penalties - Cipriani (2)
Referee: P Gaüzère (France)