Chiefs 30 Tigers 6
Exeter Chiefs 30
Leicester Tigers 6
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
If you’re an Exeter Chiefs fan you probably don’t want 2017 to end, such has been the joy the past 12 months has brought.
That said, Rob Baxter’s side will head into the New Year not only as reigning Aviva Premiership champions, but top of the current pile, some ten points clear of next-best Saracens.
Tasked with finishing the year on a high, the Chiefs duly rose to the occasion, scoring four second half tries to ensure not only maximum reward but condemn visiting Leicester Tigers to a sixth straight defeat.
After a tight first half - one in which they led 6-3 at the turn - Devon's finest made light of conditions being against them to power to a famous victory.
Don Armand, Henry Slade, Jonny Hill and Jack Yeandle all helped themselves to a try apiece, capitalising on the graft that had gone before, and helping to avenge their defeat earlier in the season by the Tigers at Welford Road.
With a capacity crowd in place for the club’s final game of a memorable year, the Chiefs made three changes in personnel to that which had won impressively at Northampton last time out. Up front, Alec Hepburn and Thomas Waldrom were brought into the pack, while the return of Lachie Turner at full-back meant Slade was shunted back into the midfield with Ian Whitten the man forced to drop out.
The Tigers, meanwhile, were also fully loaded for the contest, arriving in Devon with a wealth of international talent at their disposal. Among those on show was Aussie hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, who was making his first Premiership start, and who was one of a number of changes to their side defeated by Saracens on Christmas Eve.
Other changes saw the visiting backline undergo a late reshuffle with England winger Jonny May moved to full-back and Nick Malouf brought in on the wing after Mathew Tait was adjudged only fit enough to take his place on the bench.
It was, however, the Chiefs who set the early attacking tone. With a stiff breeze at their backs, they wasted little time in clicking into gear, forging their first real opening after just three minutes. Using a penalty award to kick for the corner, the home pack combined as one to set-up a driving maul just metres from the Leicester line.
Initially, the signs looked promising as they inched their way towards the line. But, just as the hosts looked set to pounce, the Tigers regrouped sufficiently to thwart the raid, forcing the ball to go out wide where, after a series of phases, it was eventually spilt in the tackle.
The Chiefs were dominating both territory and possession, but too often they could not find the end product, either spilling the ball in the slippery conditions or being forced back by some defiant defensive duties from the visitors.
As the first quarter came and went in a flash, finally the Chiefs got themselves up and running when Slade plundered a lengthy, 40-metre penalty after the Tigers had been brilliantly turned over in possession just inside their own half.
Exeter's lead proved short-lived as the Tigers - with a rare foray into enemy land - levelled the match when England playmaker George Ford slotted a penalty of his own after Alec Hepburn was pulled up by referee Carig Maxwell-Keys for dropping a scrum just outside his own 22.
Level heading towards the break, the Tigers would happily have taken that scoreline given the lack of ball they had endured for much of the opening 40 minutes. However, a second Chiefs penalty, this time slotted by skipper Gareth Steenson, inched the home side back in front and gave them a slender advantage to take into the second half.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 6 LEICESTER TIGERS 3
Now with conditions firmly in their favour, it was the Midlanders who emerged quickest out of the traps on the resumption. Early pressure got them front foot ball, the results of which eventually saw them glean a penalty that Ford slotted after Sam Hill was adjudged to have gone off his feet trying to defend at a ruck.
Will Chudley and Harry Williams both threatened to score, before Armand was eventually driven over the line for the opening try, which was converted by Steenson.
The score seemed to ignite the visitors and for a sustained period they had the hammer down in attack, trying to bully the Chiefs with a simple, one-directional approach, that focused heavily on utilising the likes of Logovi'i Mulipola, Polota-Nau and Manu Tuilagi as their main strike runners.
To their credit, the Chiefs held firm, producing a stubborn defensive line that was not only rock solid, but was just as effective in winning a couple of key turnovers just yards from the line.
Indeed, having soaked up sustained Leicester pressure, Baxter's side turned defence into attack, producing a relentless series of attacking phases that propelled them from their own 22 to that of Leicester's 22. With the Tigers visibly wilting under the onslaught, the home side themselves preceded to go route one, using their forwards to bludgeon their way to within sight of the line.
Ten minutes later and the Chiefs were extending their advantage. Nic White's box kick seemed easy enough as it caught on the strong wind, but a mix-up in communication between Ford and May allowed England colleague Slade to pick the ball from between them and gallop clear of the cover for a second converted score.
Sandy Park duly erupted as the hosts pulled two converted scores clear. The Tigers, visibly shaken by the quick one-two from their rivals, looked to counter, but it would be to no avail. Indeed, the Chiefs were unlucky not to add a third try on 67 minutes when White capitalised on more loose play from the visitors. As the Aussie twice hacked forward following Sam Simmonds' hefty collision in the build-up, he won the subsequent foot race to the line to dot down.
Referee Maxwell-Keys immediately wanted to check the impact of Simmonds and following a quick conflab with TV match official Geoff Warren, it was deemed the England international had knocked the ball forward in the tackle, meaning the score was chalked off much to the derision of many inside Sandy Park.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to pile forward and with their bench added a fresh zest for life in the final quarter, it came as no surprise when they added a third try with ten minutes remaining, a slick handling move creating the opening out side for Jonny Hill to squeeze over in the left corner.
Job done and dusted, the only real thing left to achieve for the Chiefs was to try and secure the all-important bonus point with a fourth try. This they duly did - like the week previous at Northampton - with the final move of the game, the forwards combining as one to send Yeandle over for his second try in as many games.
In truth, it was the perfect finale to 2017. Now, the objective is to go even better in 2018, starting with their first assignment at Newcastle in a week's time.
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner; J Nowell (J Short 76), H Slade, S Hill, O Woodburn; G Steenson (capt, I Whitten 67), W Chudley (N White 54); A Hepburn (C Rimmer 65), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 8), H Williams (T Francis 59); S Skinner, J Hill; D Ewers (S Simmonds 54), D Armand, T Waldrom (M Lees 54).
Tries - Armand, Slade, J Hill, Yeandle; Conversions - Steenson (2); Penalties - Slade, Steenson
Leicester Tigers: J May; N Malouf, M Tuilagi (J Ford 76), M Toomua, A Thompstone (M Tait 72); G Ford (capt), B Youngs (S Harrison 69), L Mulipola (K Traynor 72), T Polota-Nau (T Youngs 54-67), D Cole (C Baumann 75); M Fitzgerald (H Wells 61), G Kitchener; M Williams (V Mapapalangi 61), L Hamilton, S Kalamafoni.
Penalties - G Ford (2)
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys