Chiefs 42 Bears 19
Exeter Chiefs 42
Bristol Bears 19
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs warmed up for the new Gallagher Premiership season by securing themselves a home semi-final in this season’s Premiership Rugby Cup with this five-try victory over near neighbours Bristol Bears.
With just a week to go until the Devonians kick-off their 10th year as a top-flight club, the Chiefs displayed all the hallmarks of a side appearing to hit form at just the right time.
First half tries for Jonny Hill, Jack Maunder, Sam Simmonds and Harry Williams paved the way for their success, before Dave Dennis and Marcus Street put the finishing touches to their triumph in the second period.
In reply, the Bears countered with tries from Jack Bates, Tom Pincus and Will Capon, but they were brief highlights on a day when the Chiefs ruled the roost.
Having returned to winning ways with their bonus point success at Worcester the previous week, Baxter stuck largely with those who had started the contest up at Sixways. Injuries to Phil Dollman and Ollie Devoto, however, meant he was forced to make changes in the back division with Max Bodilly and Tom Hendrickson included from the outset.
Up front, there were first starts of the season for both Jonny Hill and Sam Simmonds after injuries - and they were joined in the Exeter eight by the returning Aussie international Dave Dennis and South African powerhouse Jacques Vermeulen.
Bristol, no doubt with one eye on their opening Gallagher Premiership fixture against arch rivals Bath, paraded a much-changed outfit. Pat Lam made 13 changes to their line-up from that which defeated London Irish seven days earlier, but there was still a decent sprinkling of experience within the ranks, provided by the likes of Madigan, Dave Attwood and former Chief, Aly Muldowney.
From the outset, though, it was Baxter’s side who dominated proceedings.Early pressure saw the hosts send up two high, box-kicks, both of which were spilled onto the deck by the Bears, and when the Chiefs gobbled up the loose possession, it was lock Hill who side-stepped his way inside Madigan, before galloping his way to the line for the converted score.
It was the perfect start for the Chiefs, but when Vermeulen conceded a soft penalty midway inside his own half, Madigan redeemed himself by firing the resultant kick to the corner. The Bears looked to attack off the set-piece, but knowing they had advantage after Hill was adjudged to have taken out his opposite number in the line-out, the visitors decided to go cross-field, Madigan’s kick sailing over the outstretched arm of Bodilly and into the grasp of Bates to score in the left corner.
To their credit, the Chiefs made light of the soft score and within minutes were back on the offensive. The home pack was like a juggernaut, launching wave upon wave of close-range raids. The Bears did well to hold at bay some serious carries from the hulking frames of Alec Hepburn, Jack Yeandle, Harry Williams, Dave Ewers and Vermeulen, but when the ball came back out again, Maunder was at hand to snipe over from close range.
Fly-half Joe Simmonds slotted the extras to both of Exeter’s opening two tries, before administering another successful kick when more industrious work from the Chiefs pack propelled them to within sniffing distance of the line, England international Hepburn this time providing the simple offload for Sam Simmonds to drive over.
With the Chiefs having bagged more points than minutes passed on the clock, the Bears were desperate for a response - of any kind - to haul them back into the contest. And they got it, gift-wrapped by Chiefs full-back Bodilly, whose attempted clearance out of defence was charged down by Pincus, who regathered possession and crossed for the easiest score he will have all season. Madigan converted to reduce the deficit further.
Any hopes that would trigger a further revival from the visitors, though, were soon doused as the Chiefs were quickly back on the attack. Like schoolyard bullies, there was no let-up from the Exeter eight as they battered Bristol into submission deep inside the red zone. Using the simple ‘round-the-corner’ approach, Baxter’s side do what they do best, fashioning the opening for Williams to bulldoze his way over for the converted bonus point score.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 28 BRISTOL BEARS 12
Bonus point secured and the path to the semi-finals looking safely plotted out, the opening exchanges of the half again saw the Chiefs attack in the same manner as they ended the first period. Bristol, though, had clearly made the most of the interval to recharge their batteries, providing a stubborn defensive rearguard action to all that the hosts could throw at them.
Baxter’s side had a couple of decent opportunities to further extend their advantage, but for some reason or another, the chances came and went and it was Bristol who started too find a foothold into the game.
The visitors were sprightly enough, skipper Nik Stirzaker particularly lively, but all they huffed and puffed close to the Chiefs try-line, there was no way through and it was Baxter’s side, who having taken the opportunity to run their replacements’ bench, who grabbed their fifth try through man of the man Dennis.
Just as it was in the first half, the Chiefs pounded their rivals back with a succession of powerful drives deep within the Bristol 22. The Bears did their best to tackle anything that moved, but such is the strength of Baxter’s side - particularly five metres out - there would be no stopping Aussie international Dennis from sneaking over. Simmonds again converted the score with his last action of the game.
To their credit, the Bears continued to put up a manful fight and they were rewarded with a third score of their own, replacement hooker Capon the beneficiary of a well-drilled line-out move. Initially, referee Craig Maxwell-Keys was unsure of the grounding, but a check with the TV match official confirmed no issues and the score, converted by Madigan, was duly awarded.
Moments later and Stirzaker threatened again, this time picking off a pass just inside his own half, and racing downfield. Thankfully, the Chiefs had just enough cover too stave off the threat and the Bears were sent home pointless on this occasion.
Threat averted, it was the Chiefs - who will face Harlequins at home in the last four of the competition - who rounded off proceedings, adding the seal to a fairly polished display when Street burrowed his way over for a first-ever try in Exeter colours. Replacement Gareth Steenson slotted the resultant conversion to add to his record club tally.
With this competition now put on ice until the New Year, it’s down to the bread and butter of the Premiership for the Chiefs who, ironically, welcome Harlequins to town in a week’s time.
Chiefs: M Bodilly; T O’Flaherty, I Whitten (H Skinner 65), T Hendrickson, O Woodburn; J Simmonds (G Steenson 61), J Maunder (S Maunder 61); A Hepburn (B Moon 60), J Yeandle (capt, M Norey 74), H Williams (M Street 50); D Dennis, J Hill (J Kirsten 52); D Ewers. J Vermeulen, S Simmonds (M Kvesic 56).
Tries - J Hill, J Maunder, S Simmonds, Williams, Dennis, Street; Conversions - J Simmonds (5), Steenson
Bears: T Pincus (I Lloyd 56); T Fricker, C Powell (T Johnson-Fisher 66), S Bedlow; J Bates; I Madigan (T Eden 73), N Stirzaker (capt, H Randall 70); Y Thomas (O Dawe 70), G Kloska (W Capon 48), N Thomas (L Thiede 48); D Attwood (L Hamilton 60), A Muldowney; J Hawkins, J Dun, J Batley.
Tries - Bates, Pincus, Capon; Conversions - Madigan (2)
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys