Chiefs 27 Bears 33
Exeter Chiefs 27
Bristol Bears 33
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Whilst the history books will write this up as another home defeat for the Exeter Chiefs, the seeds of encouragement that flourished from this performance could yet blossom into something special over time.
The Premiership Rugby Cup has - and always will be - a breeding ground for young Chiefs to step onto the big stage. Stars of the future has been born and bred in this very competition, before later going on to claim some of the game’s biggest rewards.
Up against local rivals Bristol Bears, the Chiefs paraded a youthful looking line-up, which other than the experienced Ian Whitten in the centre, boasted just 68 appearances amongst the other 14 starters.
That lack of experience, though, did little to dampen a performance which - in the cold light of day - will certainly have served up more positives than negatives. Aussie fly-half Jack Walsh bagged a brace of tries, whilst prop James Kenny also got in on the scoring act, alongside a further 12 points from the boot of Josh Hodge.
It was, however, not enough to thwart a Bears side, who having come back from 14-0 down with a penalty try and a score from Sam Bedlow, eventually bagged victory in the second half thanks to further scores from Will Capon, Dan Thomas and Macenzzie Duncan.
With the Chiefs switching their attentions away from the rigours of the top-flight for the next two weeks, it was a much-changed home line-up, which included four debutants, that took to the field for the visit of their nearest and dearest.
And it was one of that quartet, centre Sean O’Brien, who helped get the home side on the front foot inside three minutes. The Irishman cut a lovely line deep inside his own half, before releasing Dan John at a rate of knots down the right flank. The winger made good ground, before being dragged into touch just on the Bristol 22.
From the resultant line-out, though, the Chiefs stripped former England international Nathan Hughes of possession and used the resultant play to thrust towards the line through lock Dafydd Jenkins, then Sam Maunder, before prop Kenny took charge and burrowed his way over by the posts for the opening try, converted by the boot of fly-half Walsh.
It was the dream start for the Chiefs who, it has to be said, looked not only lively and energetic, but fully committed in their actions, chopping down their rivals with a string of powerful hits around the park.
Harry Thacker and Sam Jeffries momentarily threatened for the visitors, before Bristol looked to launch another attack deep inside the Exeter half. Whitten, the elder statesman in the home ranks, was alert to the danger, intercepting Theo Strang’s pass before releasing O’Brien on the break.
Still with plenty to do, the former Connacht man - on his first senior outing for the club - shrugged off two wishy-washy tackles before racing clear and popping the pass inside to Walsh, who needed no second invitation to dive in under the posts for a second converted score.
To a man, the Chiefs were dominating in every area - a point underlined when a sublime kick in behind from Whitten caused yet more angst in the Bristol defence. On this occasion, though, the home side could not turn their pressure into points, missing the resultant line-out and allowing the Bears to clear the danger.
Now, back up field themselves, it was the Bears who would finish the half the stronger as the experience of skipper Dave Attwood, along with a number of their other front-line stars, started to make a difference.
Hughes and Strang threatened when they combined off the base of a scrum, before the Bears struck with five minutes of the half remaining.
Having driven a line-out in field, Attwood commanded his fellow forwards to amass around him, creating a driving wedge that the Chiefs could not handle. As the Exeter bodies splintered out at every angle, referee Michael Hudson had little option but to award the penalty try. The home cause further hampered with prop Kenny send to the sin-bin for his actions.
It was the lift Bristol had been craving and just two minutes later they drew level, replacement Bedlow sneaking over under the sticks after he picked out a yawning gap in the home defensive line. He added the extras to his own score to level it up at the turn.
HALF TIME: EXETER CHIEFS 14 BRISTOL BEARS 14
On the resumption, it was again the Chiefs who started brightly as they took just four minutes to regain their lead. Using their pack to plough their way through the middle, they forced a penalty - which also saw Bristol flanker Dan Thomas sent to the sin-bin - and up stepped Hodge to dissect a beautiful kick between the posts at the North End.
Moments later and the Chiefs were on the offensive again, slick hands releasing the hulking great frame of Rus Tuima deep inside the Bristol half. As the Fijian-born forward stepped his way through the traffic, it seemed all he had to do was ship the pass to his right for a certain try for the Chiefs.
Instead, he held onto possession for a split second too long, allowing Bristol to regroup and cover his offload, which went the other way where a clutch of bodies from both sides were piled up together.
Bristol survived that let-off and proceeded to plonk themselves back down the other end, where it was there turn to set up camp deep into enemy territory. The Chiefs, though, were manfully sticking to task, knocking them back at every opportunity, forcing them to think on the hoof in terms of their attacking shape.
With options limited, the Bears looked to work the ball from right to left. Walsh, though, was alert to the danger and in a flash masterfully picked off another pass, sparking a sprint race to the line between him and Bristol winger Toby Fricker. The Aussie, however, is no slouch and with a boisterous crowd roaring his every stride, he galloped in under the posts to add his second of the game, again converted by the boot of Hodge.
Ten points clear, all appeared nice and rosey in the home camp as the game edged towards the final quarter. Bristol were desperate for a lifeline back into the game and having emptied their bench, it was the fresh muscle which proved decisive in their eventual fightback.
Replacement hooker Capon found his way over from close range after a sustained spell of Bristol pressure, quickly followed just three minutes later when a slick attack down the left allowed Thomas to glide over unopposed for a fourth try, converted by Bedlow, to make the score 26-24.
In front for the first time in the game, it was a position the visitors would not squander as they bossed both possession and territory for the final embers of the game. Replacement Duncan added a fifth converted try late on, finishing off more strong work from the Bears pack, as they put themselves crucially two scores clear.
This Chiefs group, though, were not to be denied and they did salvage a losing bonus point with the last action of the game. Hodge drilling over a penalty after his team-mates had cleverly worked possession from deep inside their own half to that of strike range just outside the Bristol 22.
Although defeated, the youthful Chiefs will use the weekend to gather their thoughts, safe in the knowledge that they will get another chance to go once again next weekend against Gloucester at Kingsholm.
Chiefs: J Hodge; A Relton, S O’Brien, I Whitten (T Wyatt 76), D John; J Walsh, S Maunder (capt, T Cairns 63); J Kenny (D Southworth 62), O Burrows (J Poole 52),S Nixon (P Schickerling 62); D Jenkins, R McCauley (C Teague 63); L Pearson (D Southworth 42-48), A Hinkley (A Hosking 65), R Tuima. Replacement (not used): J Barton.
Tries - Kenny, Walsh (2); Conversions - Hodge (3); Penalties - Hodge (2)
Yellow Card: Kenny
Bears: L Morahan (C Powell 64); D Bailey (O Lennon 52), J Bates, A Frisch, T Fricker; I Lloyd (S Bedlow 27), T Strang; J Woolmore (A Challenger 63), H Thacker (W Capon 55), J Armstrong (J Benz-Salomon 59); D Attwood (capt, E Holmes 55), J Hawkins; S Jefferies (M Duncan 64), D Thomas, N Hughes.
Tries - Penalty Try, Bedlow, Capon, Thomas, Duncan; Conversion - Bedlow (3)
Yellow Card: Thomas
Referee: M Hudson