Chiefs 22 Harlequins 19
Exeter Chiefs 22
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
It wasn't all that pretty, but in truth who really cares.
Exeter Chiefs kicked-off their 10th season in the Gallagher Premiership by recording a hard-fought victory over Harlequins at Sandy Park.
In a bruising opening day encounter, 17 points from the boot of fly-half Joe Simmonds, plus a first half try from lock Jonny Hill, proved just enough for Rob Baxter's side to seal the points.
Harlequins, it must be said, played their part in an entertaining match-up, claiming two tries through livewire winger Gabriel Ibitoye to go alongside three penalties from Marcus Smith, but it was not enough and their only reward from their trek to the Westcountry was a losing bonus point.
Fresh from securing their place in the last four of the Premiership Rugby Cup - where they will ironically face Harlequins in early February - the week previous, Baxter saw little reason to tinker with his winning formula too much. Indeed, he made just one change to his starting line-up, handing a top-flight debut to South African Jacques Vermeulen with Dave Ewers ruled out due to an infected wound in his head.
Harlequins, meanwhile, handed first starts to five of their summer recruits, among them former Chief Tom Lawday, who has impressed many at The Stoop since his arrival during the close season.
With conditions perfect in the Westcountry, it was the visitors who started the brighter. Just two minutes has elapsed when the Londoners believed they had broken the deadlock. A clever blindside move off a close-range line-out released winger Ibitoye, who used his clever footwork to sneak over in the left corner.
Referee Christophe Ridley was unsure too the validity of the score and immediately referred the matter to TV match official, Geoff Warren. Thankfully, for the Chiefs, it didn’t take long for the replays to show the Quins’ flyer had gone into touch and the score was duly chalked off.
It was certainly a let-off for the Chiefs, but they could do nothing to prevent Harlequins when they came knocking again just moments later. This time, the hosts penalised for holding on deep inside their own 22, allowing Smith to fire over a simple penalty.
Exeter’s response to falling behind, however, was to hit back with their first meaningful threat of the game. Decent carries from Sam Simmonds and Jacques Vermeulen got them on the front foot, before Tom Hendrickson was felled by a high tackle. The Chiefs used the resultant penalty to kick for the corner from which they could launch their tried-and-trusted line-out drive.
Lock Jonny Hill towered above his opposite number to take the set-piece, but as the Chiefs looked to drive for the line, Harlequins lock Stephan Lewies had some how worked his way through the middle of the maul, forcing the ball to the floor to win a crucial turnover.
Undeterred, the Chiefs threatened again midway through the half, using another five-metre line-out to work an opening. Harlequins, as they did before, did well to repel the threat, forcing the ball to go wide where Hendrickson coughed up possession as he charged his way towards the try-line.
It was certainly better from the Chiefs, who were beginning to dictate terms in both territory and possession. Using their pack to provide the hard yards, the pressure finally told when the home side were awarded another penalty. This time they declined the kick for the corner, opting for the posts which Joe Simmonds duly dissected with a precision kick.
Home cheers, though, would prove short-lived as back roared the visitors, who having made the most of a poor restart from the Chiefs were able to work their way deep into enemy territory. Baxter’s side did well to initially hold at bay a series of attacking raids, but when they leaked another soft penalty, it was the quick-thinking of Argentine scrum-half Martin Landajo, who caught the hosts sleeping, allowing Ibitoye to get over in the corner. This time there would be no saving grace for the Chiefs.
It was a timely wake-up call for the Devonians, who themselves hit back with virtually their next meaningful attack. Clever play released England international Sam Simmonds down the right at a rate of knots. Although he was felled, support was close at hand, but so too were some illegal Harlequins bodies who prevented the ball going wide.
Vermeulen toom charge of proceedings, picking up the ball and tapping for the charge towards the line. The South African - making his Premiership debut - was halted, but as the mass of bodies followed in behind, it appeared Jonny Hill had done enough to squirm over the whitewash. Referee Ridley decided he was held, but when the TMO intervened, asking him to take a closer look, he was forced into a re-think, awarding the score much to the delight of the masses inside Sandy Park.
Simmonds slotted the extras to that and penalty five minutes before the break as the Chiefs finally looked to get some breathing space between them and their rivals. However, as the half-time whistle beckoned, Smith reduced the arrears to just two points when he landed a penalty after home prop Harry Williams had been pulled up for dropping a scrum.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 13 HARLEQUINS 11
After an end-to-end first half, it came as little surprise that the second period started in much the same manner. Both sides used the opening exchanges to test one another’s defensive strengths.
Rival box kicks were used as the preferred option to try and win the territorial battle, but it was from turnover ball that the visitors were able to glean the upper hand with just ten minutes of the half played.
A clever switch back play saw Smith release Ibitoye through the heart of the Exeter midfield, he offloaded to Mike Brown who, despite making a decent charge for the line, was brought to ground by a clutch of home defenders. Harlequins, though, recycled play quickly and when they threatened again, this time a rogue Chiefs hand in the tackle, gifted Smith his third successful penalty of the game.
Baxter had seen enough and turned to his bench to re-ignite some fire into his side’s advances. England internationals Ben Moon and Matt Kvesic were both introduced into the fray, as was young prop Marcus Street.
And it didn’t take long for the tactic to paid dividends, Moon instigating a home attack which, after several phases, was eventually rewarded with a penalty, which Joe Simmonds dispatched with aplomb to restore the home side’s narrow buffer.
It was just what the Chiefs had craved and when Simmonds extended their lead further, landing two quickfire penalties, the home side at last had a bit of breathing space to take into the final ten minutes.
Harlequins, though, were far from finished and when they countered with a smart break-out down the right involving Aaron Morris, Joe Marchant and Charlie Mulchrone, it was the visitors who worked the ball across field to Alex Dombrandt, whose pass released Ibitoye to squeeze over in the corner.
Again the officials were unsure as to whether to award the score. First they checked whether a pass on the left was forward, then they checked another on the right flank, before deliberating over whether Ibitoye had in fact put his foot in touch again.
Numerous TV replays ensued - particularly on the right wing call in which Alex Dombrandt's scoring pass looked marginal - but in the end it was deemed everything was present and correct and the score was duly awarded, thus ensuring a grandstand finale to the encounter.
Game on with just a handful of minutes left, the Chiefs pushed forward in numbers looking to peg their rivals back. It was a clever move from the home side, who subsequently won a penalty for their efforts. Instead of opting for a shot at the target, they instead decided to tap and go in search of greater reward. However, Kvesic lost control of the ball following a heavy collision and all of a sudden Harlequins were on the counter.
Thankfully, nothing came of the spill and the Chiefs were able to hold out in the dying second for a hard-fought, opening day victory.
Chiefs: M Bodilly; T O'Flaherty, I Whitten, T Hendrickson, O Woodburn (S Hill 32); J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Maunder 74); A Hepburn (B Moon 52), J Yeandle (capt), H Williams (M Street 52); D Dennis (S Lonsdale 66), J Hill; J Kirsten (M Kvesic 54), J Vermeulen, S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): E Taione, G Steenson.
Try - J Hill; Conversion - J Simmonds; Penalties - J Simmonds (5)
Harlequins: M Brown; C Murley (A Morris 71), J Marchant, B Tapuai, G Ibitoye; M Smith (J Lang 68), M Landajo (C Mulchrone 71); S Garcia Botta (M Lambert 54), S Baldwin (E Elia 71), W Collier (S Kerrod 54); M Symonds (G Young 64), S Lewies; C Robshaw (capt), W Evans (A Dombrandt 54), T Lawday.
Tries - Ibitoye (2); Penalties - Smith (3)
Referee: C Ridley