Chiefs 28 Gloucester 20
Exeter Chiefs 28
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Even when they don’t fire on all cylinders, Exeter Chiefs still had enough in the tank to maintain their perfect start to the defence of their Gallagher Premiership crown with this victory over visiting Gloucester at Sandy Park.
In what was their final on-field performance before the curtain call on what has been a 2020, Rob Baxter’s side were able to rouse themselves sufficiently for a last yearly hurrah, bringing about another five-point haul to keep them top of the pile heading into the New Year.
Having kicked things off almost 12 months ago with victory away to London Irish, last season’s double winners underlined they will once again be the team to beat in 2021 with this latest four-try success.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and, of course, the now obligatory try or two for the free-scoring Sam Simmonds. The all-action No.8 took his seasonal tally to eight in four Premiership games, whilst Jonny Gray and Ollie Devoto completed the job with further touchdowns, all of which were converted by the trusty boot of Simmonds’ younger sibling, Joe.
Gloucester - to their credit - offered the toughest resistance yet this season to the Devonians, but even they were unable to live with their rivals when push eventually came to shove. They could - and probably should - have gleaned a losing bonus point for their efforts, but a late penalty miss from Lloyd Evans denied them of any reward.
Evans had earlier landed two penalties, plus converted Toby Venner’s second half double, but that was all the visitors could muster in a spirited away-day showing.
Having not taken to the field since their European victory over Glasgow Warriors a fortnight earlier - that due to an outbreak of Covid-19 within the playing group - it was little surprise that the home side looked somewhat rusty during the opening exchanges.
Gloucester, who welcomed back Fraser Balmain and the dangerous Jonny May into their starting line-up, made the most of the situation, setting up camp inside the Chiefs 22 with virtually their first meaningful attack.
An Evans penalty to the left corner - given after Sam Skinner had been adjudged to have not rolled away from the tackle - gave the Cherry & Whites their first chance of the game. However, as they looked to rumble over from the resultant five-metre line-out, the Chiefs somehow did enough to hold the threat at bay, burrowing sufficiently in numbers to keep the ball from touching the floor.
The visitors, though, continued to press and when awarded another penalty, Evans this time opted for a shot at goal after Scotsman Stuart Hogg became the latest Chief to fall foul of referee Tom Foley. Again, the Chiefs survived as the young playmaker - who isn’t afraid to take his time on setting his sights - saw his effort drift wide of the left post.
Baxter’s side were certainly living dangerously, but straight from the subsequent restart they again shot themselves in the foot, Jannes Kirstentaking May out in the air, gifting Evans another kick which, on this occasion, he duly took, dissecting the posts at the North End with a precision effort from 40 metres out.
It was no more than Gloucester deserved for their spirited opening quarter - and they were given further incentive to attack when Ian Whitten was sent to the cooler for a ten minute stint, after he deliberately knocked the ball down as the visitors looked to ship the ball wide at pace.
Ironically, the Chiefs played their best rugby of the half whilst a man down. Luke Cowan-Dickie went close from a tap penalty, before his fellow forwards were deemed held up on the try-line after a succession of close-range thrusts.
Gloucester survived on that occasion, but when the home side came again, No.8 Sam Simmonds picking up from the base of a scrum, it gave them the home side the perfect platform from which they could terrorise their opponents once more. Again, the forwards did the donkey work, rumbling their way from right to left, before Gray was propelled over by the posts for the game’s opening try, converted by the boot of skipper Joe Simmonds.
This was more like it from the Chiefs, but as half time approached and the clock entered into the red, a charged down box kick by Jack Maunder allowed the visitors to snuffle out a penalty, which Evans dispatched with the last action of the half.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 GLOUCESTER 6
With little to choose between the teams after the first period, the Chiefs re-emerged for the second half, no doubt warmed by a few home truths delivered by Baxter and his trusty lieutenants during the interval.
Whatever was said, it clearly had the desired effect as the Chiefs quickly set about Gloucester with a greater gusto than they had shown previously. Suddenly, they injected more pace into their play; the carrying became more confrontational and direct; and so they found greater reward deep behind enemy lines.
Joe Simmonds threatened within minutes, sniping down the blind side with a mazy run. However, a knock-on just a metre or two from the whitewash saw the chance come and go.
Undeterred, Simmonds came again, this time instigating the attack, which ultimately led to Exeter’s second try. He looped a lovely pass to Whitten wide on the left, the Irishman cut back inside, before the forwards again took charge. Gray and Dave Ewers did the initial bust with two heavyweight carries, before Simmonds’s sumptuously offloaded to Devoto, who picked a lovely line to race in under the sticks for the converted score.
That was more like it from the hosts who, just minutes later, were adding to their tally. Having punted a penalty deep into the corner, Gray took the resultant line-out before his fellow forwards amassed around him and there was Sam Simmonds, as he does so often, to peel off the back of the move and drive over for the score.
At 21-6, the Chiefs were suddenly in firm control of proceedings. No longer the edgy Exeter of the first half, they now had real purpose about their play.
Gloucester, though, were far from finished and having taken the opportunity to run the majority of their bench, it was replacements Venner and Olly Thorley who helped to inject some life into their play. The two combined well to fashion an opening for the latter in the right corner. However, a superb cover tackle from the industrious Ewers saw the Gloucester winger bundled into touch just a yard or two from the line.
The Chiefs did well to repel that threat, but they were unable to thwart Gloucester’s next opening, scrum-half Venner on hand to scamper in under the posts after great build-up play involving Mark Atkinson and Val Rapava Ruskin.
It was a cleverly worked try for the visitors, but any thoughts they made have had of causing an upset in the final quarter were soon doused as the Chiefs grabbed their bonus point score with just under ten minutes remaining.Using their pack to pound their way into the Gloucester 22, strong carries from Richard Capstick and Sam Skinner got the home side to within touching distance of the line, before Sam Simmonds picked up and squirmed his way over by the posts for his second of the day.
The 2,000-strong crowd saluted their heroes on another job ‘well done’ - but it would be the visitors who would have the final say as Venner claimed his second of the game, this time finishing off a pass from Jack Singleton to claim a second score, again converted by Evans.
Then, with the game all but up, Evans - now season as the heir to the Gloucester throne following the recent departure of Danny Cipriani from Kingsholm - had the chance to earn his side at least a point from their trip to Devon. A penalty in the final minute, given after Marcus Street had stood up a scrum, gifted him the chance to cap a decent performance. However, he fluffed his lines with the resultant kick.
For the Chiefs, it at least ensured a happy ending to what has been a weird and wonderful year of activity. What 2021 has in store remains to be seen, but for now let’s toast in the New Year safe in the knowledge that Exeter remain the Premiership’s leading lights.
Chiefs: S Hogg (T Hendrickson 40); O Woodburn, I Whitten, O Devoto, T O’Flaherty (H Skinner 76); J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 58); B Moon (A Hepburn 76), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 58), H Williams (M Street 58); J Gray, S Skinner; D Ewers (R Capstick 65), J Kirsten (D Armand 69), S Simmonds.
Tries - Gray, Devoto, S Simmonds (2); Conversions - J Simmonds (4)
Yellow Card: Whitten
Gloucester: K Moyle; L Rees-Zammit (O Thorley 55), C Harris, M Atkinson, J May; L Evans, C Chapman (T Venner 55); V Rapava-Ruskin (J Ford-Robinson 64), J Singleton (H Walker 64), F Balmain (C Knight 49); E Slater, M Alemmano (A Craig 64); J Reid (S Nagle-Taylor 32-40), L Ludlow (capt), R Ackermann (S Nagle-Taylor 55). Replacement (not used): G Barton
Tries - Venner (2); Conversions - Evans (2); Penalties - Evans (2)
Referee: T Foley