Chiefs 35 Gloucester 22
Exeter Chiefs 35
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter’s hopes of a fifth successive trip to English Rugby HQ remains firmly on course after Rob Baxter’s side sealed their place in the Gallagher Premiership play-offs with three games to spare with victory over visiting Gloucester.
The table-topping Devonians notched another maximum haul and a sixth victory on the bounce since restart with a five-try showing against the new-look Cherry & Whites.
Forwards Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Jonny Hill all maintained their rich vein of try-scoring form with a touchdown apiece, while backs Ian Whitten and Jack Maunder also got in on the scoring act after the break.
Skipper Joe Simmonds kicked the remainder of the home points with another faultless display in league win No.15 for the season.
Gloucester, it has to be said, played their part in a bruising encounter, claiming tries through Matt Banahan (2) and Josh Gray, plus seven points from the boot of Billy Twelvetrees.
It was, however, never enough to thwart a Chiefs outfit, who are clearly keen to erase last season’s Twickenham heartache and underline themselves as the top dogs of the English game.
With a near perfect record since rugby restarted last month, the Chiefs headed into this latest midweek encounter with another powerful array of talent on show. Indeed, it was a much-changed side from that which had won 22-19 at Northampton Saints last time out with only centre Tom Hendrickson remaining in situ from the outset.
Gloucester, now under the stewardship of George Skivington, also made wholesale changes with the visitors parading 15 different faces from that which had won against London Irish at the weekend.
It was, however, a potent mix of their own with Twelvetrees skippering a side, which included the likes of Henry Trinder, Matt Banahan, Logovi’i Mulipola and Ruan Ackermann, the son of former head coach, Johann Ackermann, who departed Kingsholm for Japan during lockdown.
Personnel in place and conditions perfect, it was the table-topping Chiefs who wasted little time in getting their attacking show up and running. Just three minutes had elapsed by the time they had claimed their first try off the night.
Referee Christophe Ridley had deemed Danny Drake had not rolled away from the tackle area and from the resultant close-range penalty, it was Cornishman Cowan-Dickie who - propelled by the force of several team-mates - who barrelled his way over for the score, converted by Joe Simmonds.
A dream start for the Chiefs, but Gloucester quickly regrouped and in their first meaningful attack of the game, they reduced the deficit when a slick handling move out in the backs created space for George Barton to put in Banahan.
Still with plenty to do, the towering former England winger made yards down the left flank, before bulldozing his way over in the corner.
Sadly, Twelvetrees could not land the extras, drifting his touchline conversion wide off the near post, but he was on target moments later when he slotted a routine penalty after Jack Nowell had been pulled up for playing Charlie Chapman as he looked to ship the ball wide.
It was no more than the visitors deserved for their own bright start, but slowly the Chiefs started to crank through the gears, imposing a power game that the Cherry & Whites were having to work hard to try and contain.
Full-back Stuart Hogg caused havoc with one of his trademark raids from deep, but as he looked to link with both Nowell and Slade, it was the latter’s poor pass that strayed into touch.
The let-off proved momentarily for the visitors, however, as on 29 minutes the Chiefs bagged their second try of the contest. With Gloucester having coughed up another soft penalty, the ball - as is often the case - was pumped into the corner.
Even though Gloucester knew what would follow, there was no stopping the home pack as they combined as a collective to propel Sam Simmonds over for his 10th of the season. Younger sibling Joe bagged the conversion to ensure another maximum haul.
As they had done earlier, the visitors looked for an immediate response and they positioned themselves nicely beneath the Exeter posts with some heavyweight carries but, just as they looked primed to strike, great work on the floor from the Chiefs won them the penalty and the chance to clear their lines.
Danger averted, Baxter’s side marched themselves back down and with time up on the clock, they used their final action of the half to net a third try.
Using the pack once again to do the damage, Cowan-Dickie twice tapping from close-range penalties, the latter of which saw Gloucester lock Charlie Beckett sent to the sin-bin, they worked the opening for lock Hill to drive over for another converted score
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 21 GLOUCESTER 8
Even by their own high standards it hadn’t been vintage stuff from the Chiefs, but it was a more than comfortable buffer to take into the second period which, again, started with bang for the ‘Men in Black’.
A sensational counter-attack from Scottish full-back Hogg saw him gallop 75 metres down field, only to be collared with the line in sight. The cavalry, though, was close at hand and when it was worked back from right to left - at a rate of knots - it was Whitten, who was able to feed off a pass from Dave Ewers for a simple score.
Simmonds maintained his unblemished record with the boot by landing a sublime conversion from the left touchline - and he was on hand to add another two-pointer when Maunder added a fifth try just past the hour mark.
The scrum-half put the seal on a wonderful Chiefs move which, it seemed, involved every one of their outfield players. It was multi-phase rugby at it’s finest, but in the end Gloucester simply ran out of numbers and bodies in their quest to defend their whitewash.
Replacement Sam Skinner could have added to the home tally, but having charged down an intended box kick from Chapman, he wasn’t quite able to gather the loose ball and the chance came and went.
It was the closest the Chiefs would come to extending their lead in a final quarter in which Gloucester - to their credit - showed their fighting spirit. Banahan claimed his second when he charged over following good from Joe Simpson; then flanker Gray showed some great footballing skills to get around Henry Slade to claim a third try with just five minutes remaining.
Twelvetrees notched conversions to both tries to give the end scoreline a much closer look than it really was. However, it mattered not for the Chiefs who know they will be just one game away from a potential return to HQ for the end of season showpiece.
Chiefs: S Hogg (O Devoto 55); J Nowell, H Slade, T Hendrickson, I Whitten, J Simmonds (capt, G Steenson 77), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 60); B Moon (A Hepburn 51), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 51), H Williams (T Francis 51); J Gray (S Skinner 55), J Hill (J Kirsten 63); D Ewers, J Vermeulen, S Simmonds.
Tries - Cowan-Dickie, S Simmonds, Hill, Whitten, J Maunder; Conversions - J Simmonds (5)
Gloucester: T Hudson (G Barton 3-13, 55-67, 68); A Morgan, H Trinder, T Seabrook (J Morris 60), M Banahan; B Twelvetrees (caps), C Chapman (J Simpson 55); C Fourie (A Seville 71), H Walker (T Gleave 55), L Mulipola (C Knight 60); C Beckett, D Drake (C Jordan 69); J Gray, J Reid, R Ackermann (W Crane 67).
Tries - Banahan (2), Gray; Conversions - Twelvetrees (2); Penalty - Twelvetrees
Yellow Card - Beckett
Referee: C Ridley