Chiefs 35 Bath 6
Exeter Chiefs 35
Bath Rugby 6
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
London’s Calling once again for the Exeter Chiefs after they booked their place in a fifth successive Gallagher Premiership final with this victory over Westcountry rivals Bath at Sandy Park.
Rob Baxter’s side secured their second major final appearance of the season, brushing aside their Westcountry rivals with another polished performance that keeps alive their dreams of a domestic and European double.
A brace of tries from lock Jonny Hill, plus further touchdowns for Luke Cowan-Dickie, Stuart Hogg and Ollie Devoto, all of which were converted by Joe Simmonds, ensured the Chiefs will be heading to HQ in a fortnight’s time for a final showdown against Wasps.
With Baxter reverting to virtually the same side that defeated Toulouse at the same venue, two weeks earlier, it was a powerful array of talent which took to the field for this latest last four engagement.
Into the fold for the home side came Jacques Vermeulen, Olly Woodburn and Ollie Devoto, the latter two coming against their former employers.
Bath, meanwhile, were at full-strength and came into the contest as one of the form teams in the top flight. With confidence oozing amongst the visitors, it was no surprise that they started the match very much on the front foot.
Stuart Hooper’s side threw literally the kitchen sink at the Chiefs during a powerful opening blast, but they could not find their way through what was proving an impenetrable Exeter defensive wall.
Indeed, the closest they got to breaking the deadlock was when centres Jonathan Joseph and Cam Redpath combined to release Ruaidrh McConnochie down the right flank. However, as the former England Sevens international looked set to strike, he was bundled into touch by some smart scramble defence from the Chiefs.
Having survived the Bath threat, the Chiefs - as they have often done this season - showcased their ruthless and efficient selves, scoring the game’s opening try with their first real foray into the visiting 22.
A brilliant kick chase from Jack Maunder saw his scrag Anthony Watson just metres from his own line, gifting the Chiefs a five-metre line-out from which to strike. Bath, to their credit, did well to repel the initial threat, including holding up Alec Hepburn - on his 100th appearance for the Devon - on the line.
However, when the hosts were afforded another tilt at breaking through, there was no mistake this time as the lumbering frame of Hill drove over for his 12th try of the season, converted by the boot of skipper Simmonds.
It may have seemed rough on Bath, particularly given their early efforts, but this Chiefs side are an unstoppable force when they edge their way into the opposition red zone.
Bath, however, responded valiantly, closing the game to just a point as Welsh international Rhys Priestland plundered two routine penalties in the space of four first-half minutes.
With little to choose between either side as the half drew towards a close, it was the Chiefs who stretched their advantage when Joe Simmonds released Stuart Hogg on the charge. The Scottish captain made significant inroads in the Bath 22, before the forwards took charge once more.
Messrs Ewers, Cowan-Dickie, Hill, Gray and Vermeulen all dented the Bath wall, before Cowan-Dickie picked up and burrowed his way under the sticks for a second converted score.
Moments later and Hogg threatened again, racing clear after picking off a pass from Bath No.8 Talupe Faletau deep inside his own half. Sadly, he was felled just shy of the line by a great cover tackle by Watson and in the ensuing play, Hill was dispatched to the sidelines for a ten-minute stint after he was adjudged to have performed an illegal clear-out on Faletau.
Bath did their best to try and make the numbers game pay before the break, but even when they did cross the line through hooker Tom Dunn, his effort was chalked off for accidental obstruction by flanker Sam Underhill.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 BATH RUGBY 6
As expected, Bath once again came storming out of the blocks on the resumption. The visitors worked their way through a plethora of attacking phases, but the Chiefs were proving miserly in defence, forcing them back with a string of heavyweight collisions.
Struggling to work their way past double-digit phases, the ideas for a breakthrough were not forthcoming and it was the Chiefs who swallowed up their threat with relative ease. Indeed, they turned defence into attack with Hogg’s booming boot pinning the visitors back deep in their own 22.
Then, when they had the chance to flex their own muscles in attack, again they were ruthless in their execution. The forwards did the donkey work before the ball was worked out to Joe Simmonds, he dropped his shoulder, picked the gap before shipping the offload to Hogg, who dived over in the corner for the try, converted - via the far post - by Simmonds once more.
Now with a 15-point buffer, the Chiefs were starting to warm to their theme. The carries were starting to hurt Bath in all areas and only a knock-on just shy of the line denied them a fourth score.
Minutes later and they got even closer, this time held up on the line, following a well-crafted, catch-and-drive from just five metres out.
Bath were living dangerously, but when the home side threatened again, this time there was no reprieve as Hill bagged his second, driving himself over from close range like an exorcet missile destined to cause maximum destruction. Simmonds, as he had done with the three previous scores, notched the conversion to make it another maximum haul.
With the game effectively done and dusted, Baxter took the opportunity to empty his bench, including given a final Sandy Park run-out to Gareth Steenson. The Irishman has been at the forefront of the club’s rise and it was fitting he was given the chance to trot onto the turf for one final time.
Sadly, the adoring Chiefs faithful were not there to give him one final hurrah - an indictment of the times we find ourselves in currently - but how brilliant would it be for the club’s record points-scorer to end his career with something really special to savour?
The heir to his No.10 throne, though, is Joe Simmonds and it was his fancy footwork that created the opening for Devoto to bag a fifth converted try with just ten minutes remaining. The centre was on hand to bag the simplest of finishes, latching onto a pop pass from the Exeter playmaker.
The job was done well before Devoto’s late score, but this was the icing on the cake for the Chiefs, who now dare to dream what can be achieved in these next two weeks.
Chiefs: S Hogg; O Woodburn (G Steenson 67), H Slade (I Whitten 64), O Devoto, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 56); A Hepburn (B Moon 58), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 58), H Williams (T Francis 58); J Gray (S Skinner 57), J Hill; D Ewers, J Vermeulen (J Kirsten 64), S Simmonds.
Tries - Hill (2), Cowan-Dickie, Hogg, Devoto; Conversions - J Simmonds (5)
Yellow Card: Hill
Bath: A Watson; R McConnochie, J Joseph, C Redpath (J Matavesi 60), J Cokanasiga (T De Glanville 54); R Priestland, B Spencer (W Chudley 72); B Obano (L Boyce 58), T Dunn (J Walker 56), W Stuart (C Judge 72); J McNally (E Stooke 49), C Ewers (capt); T Ellis (M Reid 58), S Underhill, T Faletau.
Penalties - Priestland (2)
Referee: L Pearce