Chiefs 38 Wasps 3
Exeter Chiefs 38
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Defeats at Sandy Park are somewhat of a rare commodity these days. In fact, there have only been three in the Gallagher Premiership in as many years.
However, when Rob Baxter’s side do come unstuck on their own turf, there is usually a rapid response and some heavy-handed retribution for the next side who dare to stand in their way.
When Bristol Bears emerged victorious from Exeter’s fortress-like home earlier in the month, having clawed back a 17-0 deficit at the break, there were some who were quick to question the attitude and mindset of Devon’s finest.
Sure, the Chiefs hadn’t been brilliant in their opening four top-flight fixtures, but they had hardly been struggling either. Four points from the summit, it was hardly a crisis, but Director of Rugby Baxter knew his side team had their eyes on other matters.
True enough, when the Heineken Champions Cup kicked off with a testing away day in France, the Chiefs were back on song, inflicting a first home defeat of the season on a star-studded La Rochelle.
That was followed up with an equally impressive home win against Glasgow Warriors, before today’s visitors, Wasps, arrived in town.
Over the years the Midlanders have shared some high-scoring battles with the Chiefs, including their last sojourn in the Westcountry back in April, which accounted for one of those rare home setbacks.
For an hour at least they offered sustantial resistance, but when push came too shove, it was last season’s beaten finalists who flexed their muscles, inflicting a power game that their rivals simply could not handle.
Ben Moon’s converted try, plus a penalty from Gareth Steenson gave the Chiefs a 10-3 buffer at the break, after which further scores from Luke Cowan-Dickie, Tom O’Flaherty, Alex Hepburn and a penalty try wrapped up a pretty emphatic victory.
Wasps countered with a first half penalty from Jacob Umaga, but that was their scant reward on a cold and biting day at the office for them.
Returning to top-flight action after claiming the notable scalps of La Rochelle and Glasgow Warriors in the Heineken Champions Cup, it was still a powerful line-up that the Chiefs paraded despite making seven changes to the starting line-up from the previous week.
Into the pack came Moon, Janne Kirsten, Don Armand and Matt Kvesic, whilst behind there were first league starts of the season for the experienced pairing of Steenson and Phil Dollman.
Wasps, who won on their last visit to Sandy Park back in April, also made a handful of changes to their side from that which had seen off Agen in the Challenge Cup seven days earlier.
They drafted in Zurabi Zhvania, Tom Cruse, Charlie Matthews, Nizaam Carr and Jimmy Gopperth, but Exeter-born skipper Joe Launchbury was a notable absentee, missing out with a calf injury that is set to keep the England international sidelined for at least a month.
With personnel on both sides safely accounted for, it was the Chiefs who started this Round Five encounter on the front foot. Wasps failed to deal with Steenson’s initial kick-off and when the Chiefs regathered possession, it was the home pack who showed their brute force for the opening score.
A series of pick-and-go drives saw the hosts drive to within a metre of the line, before England prop Moon burrowed his way over for the score, converted by Steenson, with just three minutes on the clock.
It was the dream start for the Devonians, but Wasps hit back minutes later, claiming their first points of the contest when young fly-half Umaga, the nephew of former All Blacks centre Tana Umaga, slotted a routine penalty after the Chiefs had strayed offside in midfield.
Exeter’s seven-point buffer was restored midway through the half when Steenson landed a penalty of his own, referee Ian Tempest pinging the visitors for failing to support their weight in trying to claim a turnover deep inside their own 22.
That would be the scoring complete for the opening half, even though both teams did their best to add to their tally. Wasps flanker Carr was denied a certain try by a brilliant cover tackle from Luke Cowan-Dickie, before Michael Le Bourgeois offloaded to Armand, rather than a team-mate, after he had burst through the middle of the Exeter defence.
Both opportunities were lucky let-offs for the Chiefs, but as the half drew to a close it was Baxter’s side who finished the stronger. Kvesic, Cowan-Dickie and Ian Whitten were all prominent ball-carriers, before a counter from O’Flaherty, deep inside his own half, saw him propel himself clear of a clutch of Wasps defenders.
However, as he looked to escape the clutches of Italian international Matteo Minozzi, he was unable to find Jack Nowell to the right of him, flinging the intended pass behind his colleague and into touch.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 10 WASPS 3
Baxter was forced into a change at the break, replacing the injured Dollman with Joe Simmonds at full-back, and the newcomer was quickly into the fray, helping carve an opening for the home side to release Armand on the charge.
As the back-row ace strode his way deep into the 22, he was eventually felled just shy of the line. Sadly, the back-up was slow in arriving and when it did come, winger O’Flaherty was pulled up for coming in at the side. It was an unnecessary penalty that allowed Wasps to clear the danger.
It proved, however, a momentary let off for the men in gold. With referee Tempest have warned Moon and Wasps tight-head Keiran Brookes for persistent infringing at scrum time, the Chiefs took the decision to replace the former for fear of further sanction. Into the fold can Alec Hepburn and against his former employers, it didn’t take the loose-head to make a mark.
His first scrum saw him dismantle Brookes, winning a penalty that Steenson duly dispatched to the left corner. It set-up the perfect platform from which the Chiefs could set-up a close-range driving maul. Cowan-Dickie duly found his jumper with the line-out, before peeling round and onto the back of the surging drive that Wasps simply couldn’t halt.
Steenson added the extras to the score, but wasn’t needed for Exeter’s third try which arrived just moments later. Having probed with a series of raids deep inside enemy territory, Tempest judged the ball had been held up.
Undeterred, the Chiefs used the resultant scrum to not only win a penalty, but it also saw Brookes depart stage right for an inevitable yellow card. Down a man, Minozzi was sacrificed for former Chief Jack Owlett to fill the void in the front-row. His first actions, though, were to walk back under the sticks after Tempest awarded the hosts a penalty try.
Now with the bonus point in their sights, the Chiefs cranked the gear lever up another notch. The pack were tormenting their opponents with some heavyweight carrying, which in turn allowed the home backs to cut loose. And it was O’Flaherty who benefitted the most from the space afforded to him, the in-form Londoner latching onto possession just inside the Wasps half, before picking his spot and racing through the visiting defence to score under the sticks.
It was vintage stuff from the Chiefs, but they weren’t finished there. Having added the conversion to O’Flaherty’s score, Steenson administered the final rites to Young’s side late on when he was able to make it a maximum haul for Hepburn’s late touchdown.
For the Chiefs, it’s onwards and upwards, starting with next week’s first leg of their European double header against Sale Sharks. For Wasps, meanwhile, they too have overseas matters to contend with, as well as a lengthy review of this drubbing in Devon.
Chiefs: P Dollman (J Simmonds h/t); J Nowell, I Whitten, S Hill (T Hendrickson 68), T O’Flaherty (S Simmonds 75); G Steenson, N White (J Maunder 62); B Moon (A Hepburn 49), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 64), H Williams (M Street 62); D Dennis (capt), J Kirsten; D Ewers (S Lonsdale 60), D Armand, M Kvesic.
Tries - Moon, Cowan-Dickie, Penalty Try, O’Flaherty, Hepburn; Conversions - Steenson (4); Penalty - Steenson
Wasps: M Minozzi (J Owlett 59); Z Kibirige, M Le Bourgeois (S Spink 66), J Gopperth, M Watson; J Umaga (L Sopoaga 70), D Robson (capt, W Porter 64); Z Zhvania (B Harris 59), T Cruse, K Brookes; C Matthews (A Johnson 51), W Rowlands (T Cardall 38); J Willis, N Carr, T Willis. Replacement (not used): T Taylor
Penalty - Umaga
Yellow Card: Brookes
Referee: I Tempest