Chiefs 34 Sharks 19
Exeter Chiefs 34
Sale Sharks 19
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
As the final prep is made to Harry and Meghan’s big day on May 19, so the planning is already being put in place for Exeter’s showpiece occasion on the same day.
The Chiefs already knew they had home advantage for next month’s semi-final showdown at Sandy Park, but they helped rubber-stamp their authority in the Aviva Premiership by collecting a maximum haul against visiting Sale Sharks.
Tries from Nic White White, Lachie Turner, Jack Yeandle and Greg Holmes were the highlights of another decent display from Rob Baxter’s side, whose latest victory on home turf ensured they will finish top of the Premiership pile come the end of the regular season next weekend.
Playmakers Joe Simmonds and Gareth Steenson completed the job for the princely champions who, on this showing, underlined they will again be the team to conquer when the last four showdown takes place.
Visiting Sale played their part in an entertaining encounter, claiming scores of their own through Byron McGuigan (2) and Andrei Ostrikov. However, when push came to shove, they could not handle the threat of the well-oiled Chiefs machine that is slowly cranking up the gears.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter and the Chiefs made no secret of the fact that they are determined to end the regular season with real momentum behind them. Rested and recuperated having had last weekend off, it was a powerful home line-up that took to the field for the visit of the Sharks.
Changes up front saw Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle and Sam Skinner all come into the pack, while behind Joe Simmonds was recalled at fly-half with Sam Hill brought into the centre in place of the injured Ian Whitten.
Meanwhile, the Sharks entered Westcountry waters with plenty of bite in their own seasonal quest.With hopes of a potential top four finish still on the cards for them, they were at virtual full strength for the long trek down from Manchester. They welcomed back Will Addison at full-back, whilst the Curry brothers, Tom and Ben, were both included in the visiting back-row for the first time together since the last game of last season.
With a capacity crowd in place for the second game running, it was the Chiefs who started the brighter, taking the lead inside five minutes when Joe Simmonds slotted a routine penalty from in front of the Sale posts after the visitors had strayed offside trying to survive early home pressure.
Home cheers proved short-lived, however, as within four minutes the visitors struck back, stealing the lead from their hosts with the game’s opening try. Clever build-up play saw Faf De Klerk feed MacGinty, whose clever kick in behind the Exeter backline saw former Chief McGuigan win the foot race for the touchdown ahead of Santiago Cordero.
American international MacGinty made it the perfect haul as he landed a sublime touchline conversion to silence the majority of those packed inside Sandy Park.
Fired into life, the Chiefs responded impressively as England No.8 Sam Simmonds burst through the heart of the Sale midfield to cause mayhem in their ranks. Although he was felled, his team-mates were quickly on the scene to take up the attack, which was eventually repelled by some scramble defence from the visitors.
A succession of reset scrums followed for the home side, all of which were testing the patience of referee Karl Dickson, before the Chiefs finally made their pressure. With the set-piece at crumble point again, Aussie international White took control at the base of the scrum before darting his way past Curry to score the try, which Joe Simmonds was able to convert with aplomb.
Three minutes later and the Chiefs were celebrating again, this time through Turner, whose stunning individual score was celebrated in all corners of the stadium. The Aussie full-back latched on to a silky pass just inside his own half before setting off on a jet-propelled charge that left Addison eventually flat-footed as he waltzed over for the converted score.
It was no more than the Chiefs deserved given their dominance for much of the half, but as half time approached the Sharks showed they still had plenty of fight in them as they claimed a second score.McGuigan’s clever grubber in behind was fielded close to the line by Joe Simmonds, but from the resultant line-out the visitors initially worked the ball off a drive inside, creating a mis-match that saw Ostrikov steamroller his way over the top of the helpless Cordero.Again, MacGinty converted to leave just three points in it at the turn.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 17 SALE SHARKS 14
It was a word of warning that the Chiefs clearly heeded as they emerged for the second period on the front foot quickly. A dominant line-out drive milked them a penalty deep behind enemy lines - and when that was kicked to the right corner, the Devonians took the catch, fed Don Armand, who in turn slipped a simple offload to Yeandle.
The Chiefs skipper won’t have an easier score this season, simply dotting down a yard or so out, but it was a crucial score that Joe Simmonds was able to extend with a masterful stroke of his right boot from the nearside touchline.
As they had done earlier, the Sharks looked to respond almost immediately. A snipe through the middle from MacGinty caused a moment of panic in the ranks, but thankfully the Chiefs were able to reload quickly in defence and the threat was averted as quickly as it came.
Undeterred, Steve Diamond’s side threatened again in attack with the lively De Klerk looking to pull the strings for them. He was bursting here, there and everywhere for the Sharks, but although they were pressing hard, they were struggling to find a way through the stubborn Exeter defence.
That was until the game entered into the final quarter when, from a scrum five metres out, De Klerk collected from the base of the scrum, he darted around the blindside and did his best to slide his way over in the corner past a combination of Joe Simmonds and Dave Ewers.
Dickson initially awarded the score, but a quick conflab with touch judge Dean Richards saw him decide to check the validity of the grounding. It was a decision that would certainly prove fruitful for the Chiefs as following several replays, it was deemed the South African had knocked on just inches from the line.
The Chiefs made the most of the let-off, not only winning a penalty from the resultant scrum five metres out, but by banging the ball back down field deep into the Sale 22. But back came the visitors again, this time with a clever counter that saw Addison release Marland Yarde down the left.
Although he was chopped down in full flight, Turner failed to roll from the tackle area and it gifted the Sharks a penalty to the corner. Again, that threat was held up defiantly by the Chiefs pack, but when Sale won another penalty in front of the home posts, they opted for a scrum, allowing them to suck in most of the Exeter defenders. They went one way, then the next, eventually creating the opening for McGuigan to squeeze over in the right corner for his second of the game.
Back within a score, the Chiefs looked to reply in an instance and they thought they had claimed the bonus point when replacement Stu Townsend appeared to scamper in around the posts.The score, though, was chalked off immediately - even though Steenson had converted the score quickly - for an early knock-on by Jack Nowell.
Steenson was clearly irate at the decision, but the Irishman was able to show his kicking prowess just moments later, thundering over a lengthy penalty after the Sharks had been penalised for a high tackle on Armand as he looked to make an indent into their defence.
Two scores clear again entering into the dying embers, the contest was effectively killed off late on when the Chiefs drove in-field off another close-range line-out to set-up Holmes for his maiden score in Exeter colours. It capped a great afternoon for the club’s Aussie contingent, all of whom are expected to play a key role over the next month as Devon’s finest look to make it back-to-back titles.
Chiefs: L Turner; J Nowell, H Slade (T O’Flaherty 75), S Hill, S Cordero; J Simmonds (G Steenson 61), N White (S Townsend 61); A Hepburn (B Moon 54), J Yeandle (capt, L Cowan-Dickie 56), T Francis (G Holmes 56); M Lees (T Waldrom 62), S Skinner; D Ewers (D Dennis 61), D Armand, S Simmonds.
Tries - White, Turner, Yeandle, Holmes; Conversions - J Simmonds (3), Steenson; Penalty - J Simmonds, Steenson
Sharks: W Addison; B McGuigan, S James, L James (J Leota 62), M Yarde; AJ MacGinty, F De Klerk (W Cliff 73); R Harrison, R Webber (M Jones 62), W John (H Aulika 50); B Evans (J Beaumont 62), A Ostrikov; T Curry, B Curry (J Strauss 54), J Ross (capt). Replacements (not used): A Tarus, P Odogwu.
Tries - McGuigan (2), Ostrikov; Conversions - MacGinty (2)
Referee: K Dickson