Chiefs 42 Bath 29
Exeter Chiefs 42
Bath Rugby 29
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
If you wanted a measure of just how far Exeter Chiefs have come in the past year, then this display from the reigning Aviva Premiership champions could not have painted a better picture.
Cast your mind back to October 2016 - the last time Exeter Chiefs played host to Bath - and it was the visitors who emerged from a titanic tussle victors thanks to a last-gasp score from Semesa Rokoduguni.
Fast forward to modern day and the difference between these two Westcountry rivals was like ‘Night & Day’. For an hour at least, everything Rob Baxter's side did was near perfection, producing a performance that had not only secured the bonus point by half time, but which ensured they remain top of the pile after ten rounds of battle.
Returning hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie set them on their way, before James Short, Mitch Lees and Don Armand all found their way over the whitewash before the break for scores, all of which were converted by master marksman Gareth Steenson.
All Bath could muster in the first period was a penalty from Freddie Burns. Such was the home side's dominance, it took until 38 minutes for the visitors to have their first meaningful venture into the Chiefs 22.
The Chiefs continued to hold the edge after the break adding further tries through Thomas Waldrom and Steenson, before Bath rallied - particularly late on - to claim a losing bonus point thanks to tries from Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Aled Brew and Matt Banahan.
It would prove the only off note on a day when the Chiefs were on song.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter made five changes to the Exeter starting line-up from that which had defeated Saracens on their own artificial turf the week previous. Alec Hepburn, Cowan-Dickie and Williams formed a new-look front-row, Sam Skinner came into the engine room for Jonny Hill, while behind the solitary change saw Short brought in on the wing for Lachie Turner.
From the first blast of JP Doyle's whistle, it was the Chiefs who set the attacking tone. Early advances allowed them to set up camp deep behind enemy lines with a succession of powerful raids. Initially, Bath did well to repel the threat, but when Hepburn, Steenson and Short created space, it was Lees and Waldrom who took up the charge, before England star Cowan-Dickie - aided by the odd team-mate or two - burrowed lowest for the opening try on eight minutes.
Shortly after and the hosts were doubling their tally, a slick handling move carved open Todd Blackadder's back division, creating space out wide for former Bath flyer Olly Woodburn to offer a simple pop pass to Short. Needing no second invitation, the winger powerfully drove the line, touching down in the left corner. Steenson again converted with a sublime kick in front of the adoring East Terrace.
Somewhat shell-shocked by Exeter's opening blast, Bath tried to regather their on-field composure. Sadly, it was to no avail and although Burns landed a routine penalty after the Chiefs were pulled up for illegal pushing at a line-out, the home side wasted little time in reasserting their dominance.
Lock Lees was the next to cross, the hulking great Aussie driving over under the posts after Hepburn had been held up just short of the line by some desperate Bath defending.
Minutes later and Waldrom was almost over for a fourth in the left corner. Thankfully for Bath, the try-scoring No.8 was bundled into touch just yards from the line.
Exeter's wait for the all-important bonus point score, though, lasted a mere two minutes. With half time fast approaching, it was the Chiefs forwards who again did the bullying work, pressing their counterparts back through drives from Williams and Waldrom, before Armand stretched sufficiently to put his side firmly in command at the turn.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 28 BATH RUGBY 3
On the resumption, the champions were again quickly into their groove. Hepburn was the latest to be held up on the line with just four minutes played, then Waldrom saw a potential touchdown from a five-metre scrum chalked off when referee Doyle opted to re-set what was a very dominant Chiefs set-piece.
The New Zealander, however, was not to be denied when on 54 minutes he timed a run in midfield to perfection, latching onto a pass before thundering his way over the line for his first-ever score against Bath. His touchdown - his 49th in 86 starts for the Chiefs - merely underlined the Devonians dominance as Steenson again landed the extras.
With the contest effectively done and dusted, the Chiefs looked to go after the already exposed Bath jugular. Short came within a whisker of adding a sixth try just past the hour mark, only to be denied right at the death by a fantastic cover tackle from Watson, who had raced at high speed across the turf to close down the Exeter winger.
At the other end, Bath did show some fighting spirit when England star Joseph made the most of a handling error by Woodburn to claim their first try just two minutes later, which he also converted.
Woodburn, however, quickly made amends for his mistake, gobbling up Steenson's restart to get the Chiefs quickly back on the offensive. The home side initially pressed down the right flank, but when it was worked back the other way - at high speed, it should be said - it was Short who turned provider for Steenson to dive over in the corner for a sixth try, he was also able to convert with aplomb.
Some 30 points clear with just over ten minutes remaining, Exeter were looking at recording a best-ever scoreline against their near neighbours.
What followed, however, did not quite go to script as the Chiefs backed off in terms of intensity, allowing Blackadder's side to strike with three late tries.
Watson was first to cross, finishing off after Rhys Priestland's clever chip over the top had fell invitingly into the path of Paul Tapuai, who gathered quickly and recycled possession to the left, creating the opening for the Bath full-back to go over.
Three minutes later and it was the turn of Welshman Brew to get his name on the scoresheet, squirming over in the same corner despite the attentions of two Exeter tacklers. Doyle was unsure as to the legitmacy of the finish, but a quick conference with TV match official Claire Hodnett, saw the try awarded.
In the blink of an eye, Bath had gone from a position of having nothing to now knowing they could at least salvage a potential bonus point from the game. They declined the conversion kick, instead opting for a fast restart and the chance of hunting down a fourth score.
And with the game into the final minute, their efforts were rewarded when replacement Banahan came in off the wing to pick a line right through the heart of the home defence to grab the bonus point score. Priestland's conversion merely cut the end deficit, but it was all a little too late.
For the Chiefs, the last quarter was something of an anti-climax giving what they had produced earlier in the contest. On this display, though, Baxter will have plenty of encouragement moving forward, particularly ahead of their back-to-back European encounters with three-time champions Leinster.
Chiefs: P Dollman; O Woodburn, I Whitten, S Hill (J Nowell 54), J Short; G Steenson (capt, J Simmonds), N White (W Chudley 67); A Hepburn (B Moon 54), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 49), H Williams (G Holmes 59); M Lees, S Skinner; D Armand (J Hill 64), M Kvesic, T Waldrom (S Simmonds 56).
Tries - Cowan-Dickie, Short, Lees, Armand, Waldrom, Steenson; Conversions - Steenson (6)
Bath: A Watson; S Rokoduguni (M Banahan 54), J Joseph, P Tapuai, A Brew; F Burns (R Priestland 63), K Fotuali’i (C Cook 50); B Obano (N Auterac 50), T Dunn (M Van Vurren 54), A Perenise (M Lahiff 50); C Ewels (J Phillips 34), L Charteris (E Stooke 63); M Garvey (capt), Z Mercer, P Grant.
Tries - Joseph, Watson, Brew, Banahan; Conversions - Joseph, Priestland; Penalty - Burns
Referee: JP Doyle