Chiefs 26 Wasps 27
Exeter Chiefs 26
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Makes no bones about it, this one hurt……
With the clock deep into the red and bodies littered across the home 22, Exeter Chiefs believed they had done just about enough to get their Gallagher Premiership campaign back on track.
For over an hour, Rob Baxter’s injury-ravaged side gave everything, desperate to keep the Devonians firmly in the play-off hunt.
Sadly, their brave efforts would be undone at the death, visitors Wasps inflicting another last-gasp defeat on their rivals. It was shades of 2016 when - in the Heineken Champions Cup - Jimmy Gopperth kept his nerve to kick his side into a European quarter-final.
The prolific Kiwi was in town again on this occasion, but he couldn’t add the extras to Paulo Odogwu’s late score in the right corner.
It mattered not in the grand scheme of things for the visitors, who battled back impressively from a 21-8 half time deficit, but it gave them all five points and helped them leapfrog their hosts in the table to move up to sixth spot.
Bruised and battered, the dejection which engulfed all of Sandy Park at the final whistle was clear to see. However, this could yet be a defining moment in the future of the Chiefs, just as events back at the Ricoh Arena proved five years ago.
With no less than 17 regular first-team stars unavailable through injury, illness and international call-ups, those entrusted with pulling on the Chiefs jersey for this latest outing manfully stepped up to the plate.
Despite falling behind to an early Odogwu score, the hosts would rally impressively to hit Lee Blackett’s side with three converted scores before the break through Tom O’Flaherty, Lewis Pearson and Jack Innard.
When flanker Richard Capstick stormed over for the bonus point score early in the second half, all appeared nice enough for the home side in their quest to bounce back from last weekend’s narrow loss at London Irish.
Wasps, however, would not go quietly and having reduced the deficit with scores from skipper Joe Launchbury and Alfie Barbeary, as well as surviving a chalked off try from home centre Tom Hendrickson, it was left to Odogwu to break home hearts right at the death.
With the Chiefs forced into change in the build-up to the game, Dave Ewers was ruled out through illness, it meant Baxter handed first-ever Premiership starts to Dafydd Jenkins, Pearson and Santiago Grondona. The visitors, on the other hand, were fully-loaded and had a number of their star names back for the trek to the Westcountry.
The Chiefs started brightly enough with a tail wind at their backs, but they declined an early penalty kick at goal, opting for greater reward in the corner. It was a brave tactic, but underlined their intent to go for Wasps from the outset. Sadly, the subsequent line-out did not go to plan and the visitors were able to not only alleviate the threat at their own, but hit their rivals at the other end with the game’s opening points.
Charlie Atkinson was the architect of the move, producing some clever play in centre field, before the visitors worked the opening out wide for Odogwu to dive over unopposed.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs would have envisaged, but their response was impressive. Grondona - who looked lively on his home debut - saw a potential try chalked off for inconclusive evidence of it being grounded, before some heavyweight carries involving Jannes Kirsten, Hendrickson and Jenkins helped create the opening for O’Flaherty to score by the posts. Joe Simmonds converted to make it a full house.
No sooner had the Chiefs edged in front, they relinquished their lead within four minutes, Gopperth firing his side back in front with a routine penalty after Grondona had been singled out by referee Wayne Barnes for straying offside at a ruck.
That would, however, be the best Wasps would offer for the remainder of the first period as the Chiefs produced a ferocious conclusion to the half. Pearson restored the home lead, the young forward capitalising on great work from O’Flaherty and Sam Maunder at the restart, to glide over for his maiden top-flight try.
His touchdown took the Chiefs past 4,500 points scored at Sandy Park in both the Premiership and Champions Cup, but it would get decidedly better right on the stroke of half time when the forwards again punched their way deep into enemy territory, before it was worked wide through a series of hands to Woodburn, who offered the simplest of passes to Innard to drive over in the corner for a third converted score.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 21 WASPS 8
Buoyed by their sprightly first half showing, the Chiefs re-emerged after the interval in much the same vein as that to which they had finished the previous 40 minutes. Hendrickson and Jenkins set the early tone, powering their way through the heart of the Wasps midfield to get Exeter on the front foot.
Wasps did well to repel the initial threat, but when the second surge followed from the home side, they could did little to thwart Capstick from picking from the base of a close-range ruck to drive over for the bonus point score.
Not surprisingly, the home faithful were purring over the performance of their young charges, many of whom are still finding their feet in terms of gleaning much-needed Premiership experience.
The visitors turned to their bench in a bid to re-ignite their charge and with fresh muscle adding new impetus, Wasps started to probe hard at the Exeter try-line. To a man, the Chiefs were standing firm under mounting pressure. Kirsten, as always, was a rock, but those around him were performing just as well.
Undeterred, Wasps continued to pile forward and with Malakai Fekitoa offering a physical threat in midfield, the experienced centre propelled his side to within sniffing distance of the line. As the visiting pack descended in numbers, a simple, yet effective, pick-and-go game worked the opening for Launchbury to drive over for the score, converted by Gopperth.
Now with the bit between their teeth, Wasps continued to buzz around the Chiefs half, looking for ways to haul in the deficit further. Jenkins twice conceded close-range penalties for the hosts, but the visitors could not capitalise.
Indeed, having soaked up a lengthy period of pressure, it was now the turn of the hosts to show their worth in attack. The forwards - as they did for much of the afternoon - did the donkey work, before it was worked from right to left into the hands of the waiting Jenkins. The young Welshman drew in the cover, produced an audacious dummy, before offloading to Hendrickson, who appeared to dot down in the left corner.
Sandy Park erupted into a wall of noise, but Barnes wanted to check the validity of the score. Thankfully for Wasps, the interjection of the official proved beneficial as TV replays would deem, the Exeter man to drop the ball on the line.
It was a seminal moment and clearly buoyed by the let-off, it was Wasps who worked their way back down the other end of the field. Looking at that stage for a potential losing bonus point, they fashioned the opening for Barbeary - released from England’s training camp earlier in the week - to make his mark, scoring a third try with just two minutes remaining.
Still in front, all the Chiefs needed to do was close out the dying embers of the contest. Wasps, though, regained possession and having broke out from deep inside their own half, they smelt blood as the game went into added on time. The visitors threw everything at the Chiefs, gleaning a couple of penalties as the pressure mounted.
With nothing to lose, Wasps peppered their counterparts with a tsunami of attacking waves. In the end, the home dam eventually burst, the visitors working the ball out to the right flank where Odogwu snuck over to sink Exeter hearts.
Chiefs: J Hodge; O Woodburn, T Hendrickson, H Skinner, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), S Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 55); A Hepburn (B Moon 62), J Innard (J Yeandle 52), P Schickerling (J Iosefa-Scott 62); J Kirsten, D Jenkins; L Pearson (M Norey 71), R Capstick, S Grondona (M Norey 55-65). Replacements (not used): J Kenny, S O’Brien, F Cordero.
Tries - O’Flaherty, Pearson, Innard, Capstick, Hendrickson; Conversions - J Simmonds (3)
Wasps: M Watson (R Miller 70); P Odogwu, M Fekitoa (S Spink 65), J Gopperth, J Bassett; C Atkinson, D Robson (W Porter 66); T West (R Hislop 44), T Cruse (G Oghre 63), B Alo (E Millar-Mills 57); J Launchbury (capt, J Gaskell 62), E Stooke; V Fifita, B Shields (B Morris h/t), A Barbeary.
Tries - Odogwu (2), Launchbury, Barbeary; Conversions - Gopperth (2); Penalty - Gopperth
Referee: W Barnes