Chiefs 35 Sharks 18
Exeter Chiefs 35
Sale Sharks 18
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
It’s a sign of the times that even when Rob Baxter carries out a major overhaul of his Exeter Chiefs side, they continue to ooze class in this season’s Gallagher Premiership.
Not exactly the same vintage as their two previous wins against Leicester Tigers and Wasps, this season’s pace-setters maintained their perfect start - recording another five-point haul - as they overcame rivals Sale Sharks in a hard-fought encounter at Sandy Park.
Tries from Santiago Cordero, Jonny Hill, Jack Maunder Tom Lawday and Alex Cuthbert were the key highlights for the Devonians, while playmakers Joe Simmonds and Gareth Steenson completed the job with five conversions between them.
Sale, however, played their part in an entertaining contest which was much tighter than the final scoreline suggested. Marland Yarde and Bryn Evans each found their way over the try-line for the Sharks, while fly-half AJ MacGinty weighed in with the other eight points.
The victory ensured not only that Baxter’s side remain at the table-top, but ensured for the first time in the Premiership they have recorded wins in their opening three games of a new season.
Fresh from success at the Ricoh seven days earlier, Baxter made a glut of changes to his winning formula. Up front, Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams and Jonny Hill were all added, while behind there was a new half-back pairing in the shape of Jack Maunder and Joe Simmonds, as well as the return of England and British Lions winger Jack Nowell for the first time since May.
However, the Chiefs were forced into change on the eve of kick-off as both Matt Kvesic and Sam Simmonds were ruled out of the game with illness. It meant first-ever Premiership starts for both Sean Lonsdale and Tom Lawday, both of whom showed up well despite having little time to get their minds around the late switch.
Sale, who the previous week had recorded their first win of the season with a 21-15 win against Worcester Warriors, made two changes to their side. Cameron Nield took over at hooker from Rob Webber, who dropped to the bench, while Tom Curry was given the nod at open-side ahead of his brother Ben.
With a decent tail-breeze behind them in the first half, it was the Sharks who started the brighter, taking the lead inside three minutes when MacGinty plundered a lengthy penalty after the hosts had been penalised by referee Karl Dickson for deliberately knocking the ball on in midfield.
It was an early setback for the Chiefs, but undeterred they soon got themselves onto the front foot, claiming their opening points with their first meaningful attack of the day. Maunder and Simmonds provided the catalyst, the latter darting through a yawning gap in the visiting defensive line before offering a simple pop pass for Cordero to race over for his second converted try in as many games.
Up and running, Baxter’s side were looking to add to their early score, but instead they leaked a second penalty to the Sharks on 15 minutes, American international MacGinty again punishing the Chiefs with another long-range effort after Dickson had spotted a high tackle from the hosts.
Moments later and the Sharks were almost in again, a well-crafted move down the right flank involving former Chief James Phillips set England winger Denny Solomona racing away. The deadly finisher looked a decent bet to restore his side’s lead only for Simmonds to scramble across and produce a last-gasp tackle which forced the former Rugby League star into touch.
Exeter may have breathed a huge sigh of relief at that let-off, but the Sharks were hungry for more and they reclaimed their lead midway through the half. Capitalising on a mix-up between Cowan-Dickie and Lonsdale, they gobbled up possession before working it wide to MacGinty. Seeing that the Chiefs defence had pushed up hard, he drilled a clever grubber kick in behind for Yarde. Still with plenty to do, the England flyer picked up possession and dived for the line as Nowell charged across in a bid to cut off the danger.
Referee Dickson was unsure of the grounding, but subsequent reviews of the incident via the big screen - and a quick conflab with TMO Stuart Terheege - deemed in favour of the visitors, who made it maximum rewards when MacGinty fired over a sweet conversion from the left touchline.
Again behind, the Chiefs regathered themselves quickly and having bossed possession for a period of time, they worked their way back into enemy territory just before the half-hour mark. A line-out drive was thwarted close to the Sale line, but when the hosts recycled the ball - through a succession of phases just inches out - it was Hill, who emerged from the mass of bodies to receive the acclaim of his team-mates for the second try, converted by Simmonds.
As half-time approached, MacGinty saw a third attempt at goal sail wide of the mark, while at the other end a decent break from Ollie Devoto almost put Cordero in for his second of the afternoon.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 SALE SHARKS 13
With little to choose between either side in the first half, it was Sale who again started the second period quickly. A slick attack from the Manchester-based visitors saw them carve open the Chiefs down the left wing, creating time and space for Yarde and Byron McGuigan, another former Chief in the visiting ranks, to operate in. On this occasion, thankfully, Nowell was in close attendance to repel the threat and keep the scoreboard untouched.
The Chiefs were certainly living dangerously, but having soaked up the early threat of the Sharks, they clicked into gear on 50 minutes to claim their third try of the day. Henry Slade - who was majestic all afternoon - was the architect, collecting the ball at pace, stepping off both feet, before creating the time and space for Maunder to race over.
It was a special moment for the young scrum-half who was starting his first Premiership game since April 2017. After emerging onto the scene during Exeter’s title-winning campaign of 2016-17, a series of timely injuries meant he was forced into a watching brief for much of last season. His celebration at the North End signalled his return to happier times.
Now with a slender buffer from which to build, the Chiefs had the all-important bonus point in their sights as they headed towards the final quarter of the game.
They would, however, spend part of that period without the rangy Hill, who along with Sale skipper Jono Ross, were both sent to the sin-bin for a ten-minute cool down following a dust-up in front of the ever-partisan East Terrace Library.
With both sides down to 14 men, it was the Sharks who prospered, hauling themselves back into the game with a second try. Replacement Pablo Odogwu was the instigator as he left Exeter’s summer signing Alex Cuthbert sat on his backside with a powerful charge down the right. He seemed destined to score only for the Chiefs to collar him just shy of the whitewash. Thankfully for the Sale man, the cavalry was close at hand and it was New Zealander Evans, who collected his popped offload to score from a yard out.
Game on - with just three points between the two sides - it was the Chiefs who would finish the match the stronger.
Welshman Cuthbert atoned for his earlier error by marking his home debut with a first-ever try in Exeter colours. The Wales and British Lions back was to provide a powerful finish, casting aside Odogwu to provide the slick finish to a stunning Chiefs attacking move.
Steenson, who is fast closing in on 2,000 league points for the Chiefs, banged over the extras to that score and his side’s final try, which arrived just six minutes from time when No. Lawday was able to burrow his way over from the last of a series of pick-and-go drives just yards from the Sale line.
It signalled game, set and match for the Chiefs, who in the dying moments were able to replace Jack Maunder with his younger brother Sam. It was the academy youngster’s first involvement at first-team level, having come into the senior ranks this summer, and makes him Exeter’s youngest Premiership player at 18 years and 177 days. Proud parents Felicity and Andy, himself an Exeter legend of yesteryear, were among the watching crowd, as were a heap of other family and friends.
Job done, memories created, it’s onto the next game for the Chiefs, who have a quick turnaround ahead of this Friday’s lengthy trip to the North East where Newcastle Falcons lie in wait.
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell, H Slade, O Devoto, S Cordero (A Cuthbert 57); J Simmonds (G Steenson 57), J Maunder (S Maunder 76); B Moon (A Hepburn 54), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle), H Williams (T Francis 54); O Atkins, J Hill; D Armand (capt, T Salmon 68), S Lonsdale (D Dennis 55), T Lawday.
Tries - Cordero, J Hill, J Maunder, Cuthbert, Lawday; Conversions - J Simmonds (3), Steenson (2)
Yellow Card: J Hill
Sale Sharks: B McGuigan; D Solomona (P Odogwu 55), S James, M Jennings, M Yarde; MacGinty, W Cliff; R Harrison (A Taurus 76), C Neild (R Webber 62), W John (J Jones 62); B Evans, B Phillips (B Curry 51); J Ross (capt), T Curry, J Beaumont (J Strauss 62). Replacements (not used): G Warr, L James.
Tries - Yarde, Evans; Conversion - MacGinty; Penalties - MacGinty (2)
Yellow Card: Ross
Referee: K Dickson