Chiefs 7 Bears 20
Exeter Chiefs 7
Bristol Bears 20
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
If 2020 was a year to remember for the Exeter Chiefs, 2021 isn't quite living up to the same billing so far.
Two games in - two defeats on the trot - that's the grim statistic Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs will chew over this weekend after they were picked off by rivals Bristol Bears in this latest top-of-the-table encounter.
Much like it was seven days earlier at Wasps, the reigning champions again struggled to find their feet, undone by a hungry Bears outfit intent on claim pole position in the Gallagher Premiership.
Harry Randall's converted try gave the visitors the perfect start, only for the Chiefs to respond in kind with an effort of their own from lock Jonny Hill.
That ensured parity at the break, but it was the visitors who pulled clear in the second period, sealing their success with a try from Fijian flyer Semi Radradra and eight points from the boot of fly-half Callum Sheedy.
Coming into the game on the back of a hefty 34-5 loss at Wasps last time out, Baxter was able to welcome back a number of key names for the visit of their near neighbours. England quartet Luke Cowan-Dickie, Harry Williams, Jonny Hill and Henry Slade all returned, as did Scottish international Sam Skinner. There was also a first-ever, top-flight start for young Aussie Jack Walsh at full-back.
The Bears, meanwhile, were virtually at full-stength and with six new additions of their own from that which saw off Newcastle Falcons last time out, it was the visitors who started on the front foot.
Indeed, just seven minutes had elapsed when they fashioned their first opening of the game. Two quickly-taken penalties from Randall saw him catch the hosts on the back foot. From the second, he clipped the ball in behind the Exeter defensive line, sparking a foot race to the line between Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Luke Morahan.
Thankfully for the Chiefs, Scotsman Hidalgo-Clyne had read the move well and was able to just get there in the nick of time to prevent Pat Lam's men from breaking the deadlock.
Undeterred, the Bears continued to press forward in numbers. They used a series of penalties to position themselves deep inside the Exeter 22, the fruits of which saw them claim the opening score through Randall.
Brian Byrne's line-out found captain Stephen Luatua at the back of a line-out, but it was the former All Blacks clever switch of the ball that allowed the Bristol pack - now aided by a string of backs - to propel scrum-half Randall over the whitewash for the score, masterfully converted from the right touchline by Sheedy.
It was hardly the start the Chiefs would have craved, but they were slowly starting to find their feet in possession. The forwards, as often is the case, were making the hard yards, whilst out back Ollie Devoto and Walsh were ever-willing runners looking to find a gap in the Bristol rearguard.
Devoto's clever pass released Slade in space and he combined well with Sam Simmonds, whose offload to Hidalgo-Clyne didn't quite hit the money and the chance was spurned just yards from the line.
With referee Karl Dickson front and centre with the whistle, the London-based official's frustrations with scrums dropping to the deck eventually came to a head on the half hour mark as he dispatched Exeter's Williams and Bristol's Jake Woolmore to the sidelines for a ten-minute stint.
Bristol could easily have lost another to the cooler just momnents later, a deliberate knockdown in midfield was cynical, but the Chiefs recycled possession to create the opening for Hill to burrow his way over in the left corner for the try, converted by the boot of skipper Joe Simmonds.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 BRISTOL BEARS 7
With little to choose between the sides at the break, it was the Bears who were again first to show on the resumption, the visitors reclaiming their lead when Dickson penalised both Alec Hepburn and Cowan-Dickie for going off their feet in front of their own posts.
Welsh international Sheedy needed no second invitation to dispatch the resultant penalty to make it 10-7 to his side.
Baxter threw on Scottish international Jonny Gray to help boost his side's efforts up front and the lock was quickly involved in the action, winning line-out possession that allowed Williams to crab off the back of a driving maul and hurtle at speed into the Bears 22. Sadly, support was slow in coming for the floored tight-head and the Chiefs were quickly turned over.
Again, the Chiefs continued to press forward in numbers but, as was the case at Wasps, they were unable to turn possession and territory into points.
Then, Cowan-Dickie's ankle-high tackle on England team-mate Kyle Sinckler was deemed dangerous, just as the Chiefs looked set to launch another attacking raid.
Having survived the Exeter threat, it was Bristol who almost countered to deadly effect. Ioan Lloyd and Randall breaking out down the left wing, only for the speeding Sam Simmonds to race back and save what would have been a certain try.
Unlike the Chiefs, the Bears did make their hard yards par as with ten minutes remaining they used a simple, pick-and-go game to position themselves within strike range - the fruits of which saw Randall feed Radradra, who used his strength to take two defenders with him before touching down for the score.
Sheedy obliged with the extras to the try, before adding a late penalty to ensure the local bragging rights went back up the M5 until April at the earliest.
Chiefs: J Walsh; O Woodburn, H Slade O Devoto I Whitten; J Simmonds (capt, J Short 75), S Hidalgo-Clyne (S Maunder 71); A Hepburn, L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 68), H Williams (T Francis 54); W Witty (T Francis 30-40, J Gray 46), J Hill; S Skinner D Armand, S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): J Kenny, T Price, C Baldwin
Try - Hill; Conversion - J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Williams
Bears: C Piutau; L Morahan (A Leiua 62), S Radrada, P O’Connor, S Naulago (I Lloyd 56); C Sheedy, H Randall (A Uren 75); J Woolmore (Y Thomas h/t), B Byrne (W Capon 59), K Sinckler (J Afoa 62); D Atwood, J Joyce (J Dun 78); S Luatua (capt), B Earl (D Thomas 62), N Hughes (Y Thomas 30-40).
Tries - Randall, Radradra; Conversions - Sheedy (2); Penalties - Sheedy (2)
Yellow Card: Woolmore
Referee: K Dickson