Chiefs 19 Sharks 22
Exeter Chiefs 19
Sale Sharks 22
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Rob Baxter had put up the warning signs ahead of kick-off about the threat of Sharks in Devon waters, but his Exeter Chiefs team were left licking their wounds after Sale claimed victory in this latest Gallagher Premiership encounter at Sandy Park.
Steve Diamond’s side moved up to third in the standings after they inflicted a second home defeat of the season on the Chiefs, who were made to pay for a dire first half display.
Tries from Chris Ashton, Daniel Du Preez and Byron McGuigan helped the visitors storm into a 22-5 lead at the break, after which the Chiefs - who had earlier scored through Phil Dollman - countered with tries from Sam Simmonds and Tom O’Flaherty.
Although pushing hard come the end, the Sharks had bagged enough in reserve to hold on for a priceless victory.
Fresh from sealing their place in the last eight of the Heineken Champions Cup, the return to Premiership action - albeit for only a week - was certainly welcome for the Chiefs, who were forced to tinker with their winning formula due to international call-ups and suspension.
In the pack, Ben Moon, Elvis Taione and Enrique Pieretto formed a new-look front-row, while behind Stu Townsend came in for his first start of the season at scrum-half, Steenson took over at fly-half from the suspended Joe Simmonds, while in the back three Tom O’Flaherty and Dollman were both added with Jack Nowell and Stuart Hogg both absent.
The Sharks, meanwhile, arrived in the Westcountry virtually fully loaded and boosted by the inclusion of former Chief McGuigan, who had been released from Scotland’s Six Nations camp earlier in the week.
Up against the breeze in the first period, it was the visitors who started the brighter, setting an early attacking tone against their table-topping hosts. The visiting pack, led superbly by South African powerhouse Jono Ross, were throwing their sizeable weight into every collision, while behind compatriot Rohan Janse Van Rensburg was already making some decent inroads with a catalogue of bulldozing bursts.
It therefore came as no surprise when the Sharks opened the scoring on eight minutes, Rob Du Preez firing them in front with a 40-metre penalty after Dave Ewers had been pulled up for a late hit on Rob Webber.
Moments later and they thought they were adding to their tally. Kiwi lock Bryn Evans was adamant he had some how snuck his way over from a close-range, pick-and-go move, but referee JP Doyle, following several viewings on the big screen, deemed otherwise and the Chiefs were momentarily spared.
The pressure, however, was far from over and from the resultant five-metre scrum, the Chiefs were reduced to 14 men when winger O’Flaherty saw yellow for a deliberate knock down as Sale looked to expose an opening down the blindside.
Up on the scoreboard and up a man on the field, it took just four minutes for the visitors to make their advantage pay dividends. A chip over the top from Rob Du Preez wasn’t dealt with by the hosts, the Sharks recycled at pace, working the opening for Ashton to squeeze his way over in the corner.
Baxter and his fellow coaches were far from happy up in the back of the main stand. The Chiefs needed not only to get their hands on the ball for a period, but they needed to stand up and show some fight, as well as some clinical execution.
A block by McGuigan on Olly Woodburn allowed them to punt a penalty into the corner, but the usually well-oiled Exeter eight failed to deliver from the resultant set-piece, spilling possession with the try-line in sight.
Undeterred, they continued to push forward and their efforts were finally beginning to show some worth. Jacques Vermeulen was held up on the line following some sustained pressure, before a well-executed backs move worked the opening for Dollman to power his way over in the left corner.
Steenson narrowly missed with the testing touchline conversion, but he then felt the full force of Van Rensburg, who ‘clothes-lined’ the Exeter playmaker as he looked to gather the restart. It didn’t look good on first showing, subsequent replays were hardly any better.
Again, Doyle sought the views of his fellow officials, the fruits of which were a yellow card for the hard-hitting South African. The decision certainly did not impress many inside Sandy Park, their opinions voiced with a chorus of boos as the centre trudged to the halfway line.
Like the Sharks before them, the Chiefs were hoping to make the most of their numerical advantage as the half drew towards a close. Instead, it was the visitors who prospered, scoring converted tries in the final two minutes of the half.
Daniel Du Preez claimed the first, the No.8 stealing over after the visitors had cleverly exposed an opening down the blindside through Ben Curry and Will Cliff; then McGuigan got in on the scoring act as he picked off a Townsend pass just inside his own half to race in unopposed to the sticks.
It was two hammer blows that the Chiefs needed to soak up as they departed into the sheds reeling following a pretty dire first 40 minutes.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 5 SALE SHARKS 22
No doubt warmed by a significant Baxter blast at the break, the Chiefs re-emerged looking to get themselves back into the contest. It was, however, the Sharks who were afforded the first scoring chance, Rob Du Preez firing a penalty wide after Pieretto was pinged for dropping a scrum.
The Chiefs threw on fresh muscle up front in a bid to offer fresh impetus, one of which was Scottish international Sam Skinner, who after a brief 40-minute run-out for the Braves earlier in the week, was playing his first significant action since September.
His first meaningful touch was to gather a line-out that instigated Exeter’s first real attack of the half. Ewers caused mayhem, using his hulking frame to send Rob Du Preez flying, after which Steenson took up the attack. Although he was felled midway inside the Sale 22, the Chiefs suddenly had front foot ball.
Under pressure, the Sharks infringed, gifting the Chiefs the chance to kick the penalty to the left corner. Now with the perfect platform from which to strike, Jonny Hill was thrust into the night air, before being dropped to allow his fellow pack members to form around him. The drive was applied, but Sale cynically came in from the side to haul the maul to the deck.
Another penalty, this time the Chiefs tapped from close range. This time, it was Jonny Hill who was held up on the line by a plethora of Sale defenders.
This was better from the Chiefs as again they tapped from another five-metre penalty. Ewers threatened first, then Taione tried to take the aerial route, before the hosts were somehow held up on two occasions by some heroic Sharks defence.
On the ropes - and have been given numerous warning for infringement - the Sharks were all of a sudden on the back foot. When the Chiefs opted for another scrum, five metres out, this time they made their dominance pay, Sam Simmonds touching down thanks to the efforts of those around him.
Steenson duly converted, despite slipping on connection, but the Chiefs were alive and kicking.
Now with the bit between their teeth and Sandy Park in full battle cry, Baxter’s side continued to push forward in numbers as they looked to salvage something from their toil. However, it was not until five minutes from time that they grabbed their third try, Dollman’s incisive break creating the opening for O’Flaherty to pick his spot.
Still with plenty to do, the Londoner turned on the after burners, sprinting clear of the cover and towards the line. All appeared fine and dandy, but Ashton - covering across at a rate of knots - appeared to disrupt O’Flaherty as he went to touchdown.
The Chiefs man, quite rightly, celebrated the score. The officials again needed another conflab to decide the outcome. Countless replays were shown, each of them greeted with a cheer every time the ball hit the deck, before Doyle eventually ruled in favour of the hosts. Steenson again added the extras to set-up a grandstand finale.
Just three points adrift, the Chiefs regathered the restart and looked to counter. Several phases ensued, but when they turned over possession, the Sharks lapped up the possession and went into a simple, yet highly effective, game of keep ball. They tried their hardest to grab a fourth try of their own, but in the end as the second ticked down, it was Ashton who leathered the ball deep into the grandstand to bring a close to proceedings.
The ecstatic visitors rightly celebrated their triumph, whilst for the Chiefs it was a case of ‘sucking it up’ following a disappointing day at the office.
Chiefs: P Dollman; T O’Flaherty, I Whitten, S Hill, O Woodburn; G Steenson, S Townsend (J Maunder 55); B Moon (A Hepburn 42-67), E Taione (J Poole 76), E Pieretto (M Street 44); D Dennis (capt, S Skinner 48), J Hill; D Ewers, J Vermeulen (M Kvesic 69), S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): H Skinner, T Hendrickson.
Tries - Dollman, S Simmonds, O’Flaherty; Conversions - Steenson (2)
Yellow Card: O’Flaherty
Sharks: S Hammersley; C Ashton, S James, RJ Van Rensburg (L James h/t), B McGuigan; R Du Preez, W Cliff; R Harrison (C Oosthuizen 48), R Webber (C Langdon 72), J Cooper-Woolley (W-G John 48); B Evans (M Postlethwaite 62), J-L Du Preez (J Phillips 62); J Ross (capt), B Curry, D Du Preez. Replacements (not used): G Warr, M Yarde.
Tries - Ashton, D Du Preez, McGuigan; Conversion - R Du Preez (2); Penalty - R Du Preez
Yellow Card: Van Rensburg
Referee: JP Doyle