Chiefs 25 Bath 18
Exeter Chiefs 25
Bath Rugby 18
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs rediscovered their winning formula for the first time in a month, but they were made to fight all the way in the defence of their Premiership Rugby Cup crown by visiting Bath Rugby.
Halloween may have been at the start of the week, but Ricky Pellow's side were given a second half fright as the visitors produced a powerful fightback to leave the majority inside Sandy Park sweating until the final whistle.
The Chiefs had looked good value up until the hour mark, leading through tries from James Short, Ollie Devoto and Tom O’Flaherty and the boot of full-back Joe Simmonds. However, Bath were refusing to lie down in this hard-fought derby tussle.
Hooker Ross Batty had claimed Bath's opening try on the stroke of half time - and when winger Jack Wilson helped himself to a brace dying the second half - there was genuine concern within the home ranks that the visitors could sneak something from their journey west.
Thankfully, the Chiefs had just enough in the tank, Harvey Skinner's late penalty helping ease the nerves amongst the near capacity crowd.
Having kicked off their Cup defence with a share of the spoils in Newcastle, the Chiefs stuck with a largely unchanged starting line-up for the visit of Bath, the side they defeated back in March too lift the trophy for a second time. Into the pack came Jack Innard and James Freeman, while behind there were starts for Jack Maunder, Devoto, Short and Simmonds.
The visitors, meanwhile, were looking to bounce back from their opening round defeat at home to Harlequins. Wales and British Lions centre Jamie Roberts and England lock Dave Attwood were both added to their mix, whilst on the bench there was additional firepower in the shape of England's Sam Underhill and Samoa's Kahn Fotuali'i.
With a strong wind at their backs in the opening half, it was the visitors who opened up on the front foot. Early pressure saw Bath make decent inroads into the Chiefs 22, the fruits of which yielded a penalty for them on five minutes when Exeter were caught offside in midfield. Former Plymouth Albion fly-half Alex Davies stepped forward to drill the kick between the sticks at the North End
It was the one and only time that Bath would be ahead in the contest as the Chiefs regrouped quickly to get themselves back into the contest. Four successive penalties - just five metres from the Bath line - gave the home side the perfect platform from which to attack, but somehow Todd Blackadder's visitors were able to stave off the threat.
The Chiefs, though, continued to press and when they were afforded a scrum under the Bath posts, they went wide to good effect as the ball was spun out wide to Simmonds, whose looped pass to the left found Short, who did the rest with an explosive finish in the left-hand corner.
Simmonds was unable to land the testing touchline conversion into the wind, but he made no mistakes when Exeter found their way over for a second score just past the half-hour mark. Working off a line-out move deep behind enemy lines, the Chiefs crafted the opening for former Bath favourite Devoto to pick his way through the gap and score.
Against the elements, the Chiefs could not have asked for a better first period. However, as the clock ticked into the final minute of the half, it was Bath who gave themselves a lifeline, Batty stealing over from close range when he peeled off the back of a five-metre line-out drive.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 12 BATH RUGBY 8
Into the second period and it was the Chiefs who this time were quickest out of the traps. Just four minutes had elapsed when Simmonds scythed through the middle of the Bath midfield with a ghost-like run at pace. As he drew in the cover, his offload to O'Flaherty failed to stick and the visitors were able to breath a hugh sigh of relief.
Bath may have survived that raid, but when their front-row stood up under intense pressure from their Exeter counterparts, it offered Simmonds the easiest of opportunities to slot a penalty from in front of the posts.
Now with the bit between their teeth, the Chiefs continued to pile forward in numbers. Skinner threatened with a clever dart and break, but again the end product was missing and the visitors were able to scramble sufficiently to stave off the threat.
There would, however, be no issue when the Devonians had their next opportunity. Using another balanced scrum deep inside the Bath 22, the Chiefs masterfully worked the ball through their half backs to the right, where O'Flaherty was waiting in the wings to deliver the killer finish in the right corner.
Simmonds - who was impressive on his first start since the Newcastle Falcons game in September - showed his laser-guided boot was still locked to target mode as he banged over a sublime kick from the right touchline.
Seemingly in control of proceedings heading into the final quarter, it was Bath - inspired by the introduction of scrum-half Fotuali'i - who suddenly sprang into life.
Whereas the visitors had huffed and puffed for long periods of the game, suddenly they had tempo and life to their play. The Chiefs did well to repel the threat initially, but when the visitors worked the numbers game out wide, it was Wilson who profited as he snuck over in the right corner for the try, which Davies was unable to convert on this occasion.
The score ignited the Blue, Black & Whites who, now with a renewed zest in their play, continued to pile forward. No.8 Tom Lawday produced a try-saving tackle to deny the visitors on their next venture forward, before further pressure on the home line saw Exeter's South African forward Wilhelm Van Der Sluys sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate offside.
Devoto was switched from the centre to the pack to help add weight to the Exeter scrum, but his absence out wide allowed Bath to create an overlap in the backs where Wilson was again able to profit with an almost identical finish in the corner.
Four points adrift with just a few minutes remaining, Bath did their best to try and wrestle back possession and set-up one final surge of attacks. The Chiefs, though, were battle strong and when Tongan Onehunga Kaufusi charged down an attempted box kick, Short was the quickest to pounce on the loose ball. The winger drove for the line, but although he was felled, the hosts worked it wide, creating mayhem in the Bath defence.
Bath No.8 Josh Bayliss strayed offside in his attempts to thwart the charge, gifting Skinner the chance to slot over a simple penalty and secure a vital victory.
Exeter Chiefs: J Simmonds (M Bodilly 72); T O'Flaherty (A Cuthbert 61), T Hendrickson, O Devoto, J Short; H Skinner, J Maunder (S Maunder 61); M Low (B Keast 61), J Innard (E Taione 61), G Holmes (capt, M Street 61); S Lonsdale (O Kaufusi 56), W Van Der Sluys; J Caulfield (R Capstick 78), J Freeman, T Lawday.
Tries - Short, Devoto, O’Flaherty; Conversions - J Simmonds (2); Penalty - J Simmonds, H Skinner
Yellow Card: Van Der Sluys
Bath: D Atkins; J Wilson, M Wright, J Roberts (M Clark 56), R McConnochie; A Davies (L Davis 62), M Green (K Fotuali’i 49); L Noguera (W Vaughan 61), R Batty (J Walker 56), M Lahiff (A Perenise 49); D Attwood, M Garvey (capt, S Underhill h/t); L Douglas, T Ellis, J Bayliss. Replacement (not used): J Davies.
Tries - Batty, Wilson (2); Penalty - Davies
Yellow Card: Lahiff
Referee: D Richards