Chiefs 26 Tigers 13
Exeter Chiefs 26
Leicester Tigers 13
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Rugby’s back, but not quite how we remember it!
For the first time in 161 days, Exeter Chiefs took to the field at Sandy Park for a competitive fixture.
Unlike early March when Rob Baxter’s side rolled over local rivals Bath 57-20 in front of a capacity crowd, today Devon’s finest took to the field against Leicester Tigers with fewer than 350 people in attendance.
These are certainly strange times for all of us, but amidst all the new Covid-19 return to play protocols, the Chiefs continue to remain a formidable force, extending their advantage at the top of the Gallagher Premiership with this bonus point victory.
Touchdowns from Dave Ewers, Stuart Hogg and Luke Cowan-Dickie, plus a second half penalty try, ensured maximum reward for the hosts, who had trailed for much of the first quarter to successful kicks from Tigers and England playmaker George Ford.
A penalty try of their own in the second period allowed the Tigers to claw back some of the deficit, but it was never enough to hamper a Chiefs side who ensured it was an unsuccessful start for new Leicester head coach Steve Borthwick.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter opted for a tried-and-trusted Chiefs line-up. Despite adding eight new faces during the lockdown period, it was only Scotsman Jonny Gray who was handed a starting role in the second row.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have undergone great change. Not only has former England forwards coach Borthwick taken charge, but there has been a glut of comings and goings at Welford Road ahead of the restart.
Not that it showed in the opening quarter as the visitors came storming out of the traps. Ben Youngs’ quickly-taken tap penalty inside the first five minutes had the Tigers on the front foot and within sight of the home line. However, despite wave upon wave of attacks, the Chiefs held the threat at bay with a powerful defensive set.
Undeterred, the Tigers pressed again and when Ollie Devoto was penalised for infringing at a ruck, it allowed Ford to stroke over a 40-metre penalty and break the game’s deadlock.
It was no more than Borthwick’s side deserved for their initial thrust, but they were soon doubling their tally, Ford again on target with a sweetly-struck drop-goal from just inside the home 22.
With Sandy Park eerily quiet, other than the on-field shouting and some boisterous cheerleading from both benches, the Chiefs needed to raise their game. Normally, all four corners would come together to aid their cause, but on this occasion it was left to the players to find a solution.
This they did, grabbing the first of their four tries on 27 minutes. Successive penalties, brought about from an ever-increasing threat upfront, allowed the Chiefs to pin the Tigers back deep in their own 22.
Exeter drove hard with their first attempt, but when afforded a second shot, Cowan-Dickie opted to tap-and-go, propelling himself towards the line from just metres out. The England hooker was held just shy of the whitewash, but with Ewers close at hand, providing a sizeable, single-man cavalry in behind, the Zimbabwean-born forward had enough brute strength to bulldoze his way over.
Up and running, it was just what the Chiefs had craved. They threatened again, moments later, only for a close-range line-out not to have the desired precision to rumble it over. Had this chance come back in March, it’s more than likely a certain score would have followed. Five months of inactivity, it was somewhat understandable that the well-oiled machine wasn’t quite up to speed.
If that tactic, though, wasn’t quite up to speed, the attack which gave the Chiefs the lead on the stroke of half-time certainly was. Working the ball off a line-out on the left, Jack Maunder found Devoto, he offloaded to Joe Simmonds, whose clever pump in midfield released Olly Woodburn on the charge. As the Exeter winger tore through the heart of the Tigers defence, he shipped a pass to Hogg who, in a blink of an eye, turned on the after burners to race over for a first try at Sandy Park.
Simmonds, unlike earlier, this time judged his testing touchline conversion to perfection, bringing the ball back against the breeze to give his side a six-point lead at the turn.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 12 LEICESTER TIGERS 6
The second half was barely two minutes old when the Chiefs were adding to their tally. More pressure brought more penalty reward for the hosts, who were happy to decline kicks at goal, preferring to go for greater reward in the corner.
Another Leicester infringement from the five-metre line-out saw Cowan-Dickie – a pocket-rocket all afternoon – once again tap and go. This time, however, he was propelled over the try-line to claim Exeter’s third try, converted by the boot of Simmonds.
It was impressive stuff from the Chiefs, whose pressure game was mounting by the minute on their rivals. Borthwick’s side leaked 14 penalties in a row, underlining just how the vice-like grip of the Chiefs was beginning to take hold.
Once again, another kick to the corner and another five-metre line-out, put the Chiefs within sight of the Tigers line. Sensing the all-important bonus point was now in sight, the forwards once again combined as one to drive towards the line. It looked for all extent and purpose that the Chiefs were going to rumble over, only for Jordan Taufua to crudely haul the maul to the floor.
Referee Tom Foley not only banished the Tigers No.8 to the sidelines for his actions, but the penalty try ensured the Chiefs would more than likely be picking up all five points come the final whistle.
To their credit, the Tigers refused to lie down and although they were down a man, they did what Exeter had done to them just moments earlier, rumbling a drive to within sight of the line. Just like Taufua had done, Chiefs lock Jonny Hill floored the mass of bodies. He trod the same path to the cooler, whilst Foley again raced in under the sticks for Leicester’s only try.
A glut of replacements from both sides littered the final quarter, meaning the contest as such became somewhat stop-start, but although both sides huffed and puffed for further reward, it was the Chiefs who masterfully saw out the contest to claim their 10th league win of the season.
Chiefs: S Hogg; T O’Flaherty, H Slade, O Devoto (I Whitten 45), O Woodburn; J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 68); A Hepburn (B Moon 57), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 57), H Williams (T Francis 57); J Gray (S Skinner 68), J Hill; D Ewers, J Kirsten, S Simmonds (D Armand 56). Replacement (not used): G Steenson.
Tries – Ewers, Hogg, Cowan-Dickie, Penalty Try; Conversions – J Simmonds (2), Penalty Try
Yellow Card: Hill
Tigers: G Worth (Z Henry 68); D Williams, J Taute, M Scott, J Olowofela; G Ford, B Youngs (B White 59); E Genge (N Leatigaga 62), T Youngs (capt, J Kerr 50), D Cole; T Lavanini (H Liebenburg 62), C Green; H Wells, T Reffell (L Wallace 46), J Taufua (T Smith 72).
Try – Penalty Try; Conversion – Penalty Try; Penalty – Ford; Drop-Goal – Ford
Yellow Card: Taufua
Referee: T Foley