Chiefs 19 Sharks 12
Exeter Chiefs 19
Sale Sharks 12
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Jacques Vermeulen put nine months of injury hell firmly behind him as his first half double helped Exeter Chiefs maintain their push to be part of the Gallagher Premiership play-off mix.
Having been forced to watch all of the current campaign from the sidelines, the all-action South African wasted little time in reminding the top flight of his undoubted prowess.
By his own admission, Vermeulen has been like a ‘caged animal’ this past month, desperate to roam free and cause carnage amongst Exeter’s Premiership rivals.
His near hour-long showing against Sale Sharks was not only vibrant and impressive, but it was packed full of ferocity as he not only found his way over the whitewash twice, but also repelled Alex Sanderson’s side for much of his shift at the coalface.
Earlier, Olly Woodburn’s fifth-minute score had given the Chiefs a dream start in a first half in which they produced arguably their best stuff of the season to date.
Sale, strangely subdued for the opening half, were much improved after the break and were able to claim a losing bonus point thanks to tries from Ewan Ashman and Curtis Langdon, one of which was converted by AJ MacGinty.
Looking to build on their three-game winning streak, Chiefs Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, not only welcomed back Vermeulen to the fold, but he was joined in the home pack by Marcus Street, Jack Yeandle and Sam Skinner, whilst Stuart Hogg was the only change to the home back division.
And it was that extra beef up front that helped set the tone for a bright opening to the contest from the Chiefs. From the outset, they quickly set about going after the Sharks, firing into their Northern counterparts with a succession of heavyweight carries.
It was, however, from a scrum deep inside their own half that the Chiefs made the all-important breakthrough. Playing with the advantage, Sam Maunder released the backs at pace; Tom O’Flaherty and Tom Hendrickson led the charge up field; before the latter slipped the ball into the grasp of Woodburn, who did the rest from close range. Joe Simmonds converted to ensure maximum reward.
Up and running, the Chiefs continued to dominate the opening exchanges. Maunder and Simmonds almost combined just moments later, before O’Flaherty threatened with a slaloming run through the heart of the Sale defence.
The pressure was mounting, however, and when the Chiefs won a penalty midway through the first half, they kicked to the corner, setting up the chance of a five-metre line-out.
Set-piece secured, the Chiefs drove in field, working their way through a series of attacking phases, before Maunder picked the ball off his bootlaces and fed Vermeulen, who needed no second invitation to drive his way over for a second score.
Sale, it seemed, were all at seas. Not only were they being repelled by a resolute Chiefs outfit, but even when they did have the ball, they failed to hold onto it, squandering possession much to the annoyance of Sanderson and his fellow coaches.
His ire would not get any better when, on the stroke of half time, he lost full-back Sam James to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on as Hogg looked to release Woodburn outside of him.
With the man advantage, it took the Chiefs less than a minute to exploit the numbers game. Again, they positioned themselves in the corner, and again it was Vermeulen who found his way over, bulldozing MacGinty as he propelled himself forward.
HALF TIME: EXETER CHIEFS 19 SALE SHARKS 0
It had been a half to forget for the visitors and the break could not have come at a better time for Sanderson, who used the 15-minute interlude to no doubt give his players a few home truths.
Having already lost Raffi Quirke, Coonie Oosthuizen and skipper Jono Ross in the opening 40 minutes, worse was to follow for Sale within six minutes of the restart as replacement Cameron Nield was stretchered off following a hefty collision with Exeter’s other Afrikaner Bull, Jannes Kirsten.
With options limited, the Sharks had little option but to throw caution to the wind. Arron Reed threatened with a sprightly burst from deep, before some sustained visiting pressure was finally rewarded when Ashman cut a lovely line back through the middle of the Exeter defence to charge over under the sticks, MacGinty converting.
The score appeared to ignite the Sale cause and with replacement Faf De Klerk beginning to show his class, both with his spot-on box kicks and speed of pass, they were able to pin the Chiefs back deep inside their own half.
Exeter could – and probably should – have tried to replicate the tactics which had served them so well in the first half, but their insistence on trying to clear the danger with kicks was coming back to bite them as it allowed the Sharks to squeeze further pressure upon them.
Messages from the Chiefs coaches were duly conveyed to the pitch and it appeared to have the desired effect. James Kenny produced an audacious ‘show and go’ to snipe clear from a ruck, but just as he closed in on the try-line, he was felled by a desperate, last-gasp tackle from De Klerk.
All of a sudden the Chiefs had the bit between their teeth as they went in search of the all-important bonus point score. Indeed, they thought they had it with five minutes remaining when Woodburn plucked the ball from the sky, setting up a quickfire ruck that allowed Simmonds to cross-field towards the waiting O’Flaherty.
The Exeter winger was alert to the plan, but in his attempt to beat two Sale defenders in the air, he was adjudged to have knocked on and his subsequent touchdown was duly chalked off.
Then, with just two minutes remaining, Skinner thought he had produced the fourth score, the Scottish international rounding off a pass from Jack Innard, who alongside Richard Capstick had hunted down a Sale opponent from a booming kick chase clearance.
Again, the intervention of the officials came into play and the score was ruled out for Kenny straying offside just metres from his own line.
That indiscretion saw the Chiefs not only concede the territorial advantage, but also a penalty that Sale used to work Langdon over from a five-metre line-out. It had brought them back to within bonus point range and American fly-half MacGinty was more than happy to see out the remaining seconds with his conversion attempt, thus denying the Devonians any hope of getting a restart.
For the Chiefs, the win ensures they remain in the top four. Next up is a trip to Sixways, where Worcester Warriors will be waiting.
Chiefs: S Hogg (F Cordero 63); O Woodburn, I Whitten, T Hendrickson (H Skinner 79), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, S Maunder (J Maunder 63); A Hepburn (J Kenny 63), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 53), M Street (H Williams 46); J Kirsten (W Witty 79), S Skinner; D Ewers, J Vermeulen (S Grondona 53), R Capstick.
Tries - Woodburn, Vermeulen (2); Conversions - J Simmonds (2)
Sharks: S James; T Roebuck, R Du Preez, R Janse Van Rensburg, A Reed (B McGuigan 53, L James 63); AJ MacGinty, R Quirke (F de Klerk 31); B Rodd (S McIntyre 53), E Ashman, C Oosthuizen (J Jones 35); J-L Du Preez, C Wiese (JP Du Preez 6); J Ross (capt, C Nield h/t, C Langdon 46), B Curry, D Du Preez.
Try - Ashman; Conversion - MacGinty
Yellow Card: S James
Referee: W Barnes