Chiefs 35 Sharks 10
Exeter Chiefs 35
Sale Sharks 10
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Not even the Weather Gods could dampen the march of Rob Baxter’s Exeter Chiefs towards the last eight of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Forced to run for cover following a freak second half hail storm, Sale Sharks would have wished they could have stayed locked away in the Sandy Park changing rooms for much longer, such was the dominance of the Devonians in this Round Four encounter.
Brothers Sam and Joe Simmonds inflicted much of the on-field misery on Steve Diamond’s side with three of Exeter’s five tries, whilst there were further touchdowns for Ben Moon and Jack Nowell in this 35-10 success.
The visitors countered with a converted second half score for centre Sam James, whilst playmaker AJ MacGinty banged over a first half penalty. However, it was never going to be enough to thwart a Chiefs side, who have now collected a possible 19 out of 20 points in Pool Two.
Barring the most improbable of twists, the Chiefs are effectively through with two rounds still to play. Indeed, rain or shine, they look increasingly well-placed for a home draw in the quarter-finals too.
Having pocketed victories in their opening three European fixtures this season, Baxter saw little reason to tinker with his winning formula from the previous week’s win against the same opponents.
Sale, on the other hand, made a wrath of changes, ten in total, for their trip to the Westcountry. They included in their ranks former Chiefs James Phillips and Byron McGuigan, as well as an unchanged back-row that featured the highly-rated Curry brothers, Tom and Ben, as well as skipper Jono Ross.
Although up against a strong first half wind, Baxter’s side dominated the opening exchanges, hogging possession and denying their rivals of any chance to make some early inroads.
The Chiefs threatened twice early on with two decent double-phase attacks, but on each occasion they were repelled either by some stout Sale defence or an over exuberance when trying to find a way through.
It was an encouraging enough start for the home side, particularly given the conditions, but crucially the scoreboard remained lifeless – and it was indeed the Sharks who broke the deadlock with their first meaningful venture into enemy territory.
Recalled fly-half MacGinty fired them in front when he was able to slot a routine penalty after French referee Pierre Brousset had pulled up Exeter flanker Jacques Vermeulen for a late hit on Ross.
That lead for the Sharks, however, proved short and sweet as the Chiefs came roaring back within minutes. Sam Simmonds, Nic White and Stuart Hogg all made decent inroads down field, before the visitors were pulled up for straying offside.
Handed the chance to keep the penalty deep into the Sharks 22, the Chiefs do what they do best. Creating a driving maul, that was hauled down illegally, before they reverted inside to a simple, yet highly effective pick-and-go game.
It appeared every members of the Exeter eight had a go at thrusting for the try-line, but in the end it was No.8 Simmonds who powered his way over for the score, which was converted by younger brother Joe.
Sandy Park roared with approval for the England’s international’s latest touchdown – this was number 33 in just 59 appearances – and they had further reason to cheer as the Chiefs quietly went about starving the Chiefs of additional reward before the break.
However, Simmonds should have created a second score right on the stroke of half-time. Having fielded possession deep inside his own half, he set off a rate of knots through the heart of the Sale defence. Leaving a trail of defenders in his wake, he looked to take the outside route, rather than opt for a pass inside to the adjacent Hogg.
The Scotsman would have had a clear path to the posts, but instead his team-mate was felled by Sharks winger Marland Yarde and the chance was lost.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 SALE SHARKS 3
Sale knew they had not made the most of the conditions during the opening 40 minutes, but on the resumption they started brightly, almost catching the Chiefs out with a quickly-taken line-out. Curtis Langdon and Will Cliff combined swiftly at the front, but thankfully Cowan-Dickie was alert to the danger and was able to put in a try-saving score.
England hooker Cowan-Dickie, man of the match in the reverse fixture the previous week, was seemingly everywhere. Having saved his side at one end, his next action was to spearhead Exeter’s latest attack, his burst through the middle causing havoc, that was only ended when McGuigan picked off his intended pass to front-row mate Alec Hepburn.
That was close, as was the home side’s next venture forward, a clever switch play between Sam Hill and Slade saw the latter chip the ball in behind, creating a foot race to the try-line between Hogg and Sam James. In the end, James just got their in time, denying the Scotsman of a first try at Sandy Park.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to pile forward in numbers and when the visitors lost hooker Curtis Langdon to the sin-bin for persistent infringing, Baxter’s men duly inflicted suitable retribution on their Manchester-based rivals.
With the numerical advantage, the home pack drew in the Sale numbers with a series of pick-and-go drives, before it was eventually spun wide to the left from White to Joe Simmonds, whose simple side-step and direct dart saw him cross for the try, which he also converted.
In touching down, though, Simmonds was needlessly landed on by Ross, whose actions were reprimanded by Bousset with a verbal warning and also a penalty from the immediate restart.
Slade drilled the resultant penalty to within 10m, thus setting up another attacking charge for the hosts. Initially, the Sharks did well to hold out the mounting pressure, but when they infringed once more, the Chiefs used another penalty to the corner to create the opening for Sam Simmonds to rumble over for his second of the afternoon.
Now, 21-3 to the good, the Chiefs all of a sudden had the all-important bonus point in their sight. Sale, though, were far from finished and in a spirited show of defiance, they claimed a try of their own, scrum-half Cliff showing some fancy footwork wide on the right, before offloading to Sam James, who was able to run in unopposed from 25 metres out.
It may have been seen as a consolation score, but all of a sudden the Sharks had a bit about them, particularly when USA international MacGinty was able to propel them back to within sight of the home whitewash following a high tackle by Jannes Kirsten.
For a moment there were a few twitches amongst the home faithful, before the weather gods came to the rescue for the home side. Up against the ropes somewhat, a freak hail storm just past the midway point of the half saw the heavens literally open.
Initially the players and officials bravely stood their ground, but as the storm above intensified, so the decision was made to take the teams off for a short period. During the respite, Baxter was able to get some key messaging into his troops as they looked to haul themselves through the final throws of battle.
Whatever, Exeter’s Commander-in-Chief said, it clearly had the desired effect as his players returned to the field with a hearty gusto that yielded two more tries.
First over was long-serving prop Moon, who was able to celebrate his 250th appearance for the club with only his 10th ever try, quickly followed by England colleague Nowell, who put the coup de grace on Exeter’s display with another close-range effort.
Ruthless, but highly effective, this was the perfect outcome from the Chiefs, who will resume European battle next month knowing they need just a solitary point to ensure they are amongst the elite eight clubs who will contest April quarter-final stages.
That has only ever been achieved once by the Devonians, who will be hoping to ensure they have home advantage at that stage. Two more victories would not only ensure that feat becomes reality, but it would send quite a statement of intent across those who dare to challenge Baxter’s side in the Champions Cup this term.
Chiefs: S Hogg; J Nowell, H Slade, S Hill, I Whitten (O Woodburn 72); J Simmonds (G Steenson 60), N White (J Maunder 72); A Hepburn (B Moon 60), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 69), H Williams (M Street 59); D Dennis (capt, J Kirsten 63), J Hill; D Ewers (D Armand 45-54), J Vermeulen (D Armand 63), S Simmonds.
Try – S Simmonds (2), J Simmonds, Moon, Nowell; Conversions – J Simmonds (3), Steenson (2)
Sharks: C Redpath (M Yarde 19); D Solomona (T Curtis 46), S James, L James, B McGuigan; AJ MacGinty, W Cliff (F Warr 70); R Harrison (V Morozov 51), C Langdon, J Cooper-Woolley (W John 29-35, 51, Cooper-Woolley 72); M Postlewhaite, J Phillips; T Curry, B Curry (C Nield 26, A van der Merwe 55), J Ross (capt). Replacement: (not used): B Evans.
Try – S James; Conversion – MacGinty; Penalty – MacGinty
Yellow Card: Langdon
Referee: P Brousset