Match Report: Exeter Chiefs 75 Bristol Bears 0
In the last throws of summer, the Chiefs sizzled, as they blew away an inexperienced Bristol Bears side by 75 points and got the 23/24 season off to a bang.
Under a blazing September sun, and with temperatures climbing past the 30-degree mark, the Chiefs ran riot, notching up try after try as a young Bristol team wilted under the oppressive might of the Exeter attack.
Whilst it might be difficult to judge a performance against such inexperienced opposition, Exeter fans will leave Sandy Park buoyed by what they saw, with attacking invention and defensive power at the forefront of the dominant victory.
The home-side set the tone within the opening 90 seconds. The Bears turned the ball over immediately from the restart and the home-side settled straight into their rhythm. A couple of phases later and Jacques Vermeulen crashed through the defensive line to make it the perfect opening.
Rob Baxter has made mention of playing at pace, and it was evident the Bears were struggling to live with the break-neck speed that the home side had come out of the sheds.
The attacking kick is a weapon that the Chiefs have sharpened over the summer, and it was deployed to wicked effect in the opening half an hour. With kicking options across the backline, Harvey Skinner, Henry Slade & Josh Hodge found space at will, and both wingers, Wyatt & Hammersley consistently found themselves free to roam.
It wasn’t long before Exeter dotted down for their second. The move began with Tommy Wyatt dancing his way down the blindside; the young winger has been a revelation in 2023 and his form hasn’t taken a dip at the start of the new season. A penalty at ruck-time allowed Harvey Skinner to drive us within 5m and after some muscular work from Vermeulen, it was Tom Cairns who sniped from the base and dived under the sticks. Ominous signs for the visitors in the opening ten minutes.
This game will be remembered for the emphatic score-line, but perhaps the more telling figure on the scoresheet was the zero next to the visitors.
It was a defensive masterclass, and despite the fact that this back-line have very little game time together, they were cohesive and suffocating, every Bristol attack met with ferocious line-speed and fearsome shoulders.
The scrum was brutal last week in the reverse fixture at Ashton Gate, and Ehren Painter looks to be an astute addition to the Chiefs summer signings. The powerful tight-head is more than just an anchor, he’s a weapon, and alongside the rest of the pack, the Chiefs number three made mincemeat of his opponents in the early scrums.
This was always going to be a challenge for Henry Slade, on the day when England kick-off their RWC campaign and with many pundits questioning his absence. However, the mercurial centre is adored down in Devon and alongside a new centre partner in Joe Hawkins, he oozed class all afternoon.
It was Slade who picked up the Chiefs third, and once again it was off the back of slick attacking kicking. Josh Hodge spotted the space, sliding a beautifully weighted kick through the backfield and forcing the Bears full-back to take it out of play.
From the subsequent line-out, Exeter drove in-field before spreading the ball back to a stacked blind-side where Slade was waiting to dot down in the corner. He nailed the conversion to add the extras and the Chiefs were firmly in the driving seat, 21-0 up and going along at a point a minute.
The try of the match came just before the half-hour mark, and you guessed it, Henry Slade pulling the strings. The centre drifted behind the attacking line, waiting for his opening. When he spotted it, he pounced, drifting outside on the pass and gliding into space. He fed inside to Lewis Pearson, with the big second row galloping away into space before offloading to Tom Cairns running the classic scrum half support line. The young nine still had work to do, but he left the full-back for dead with a wicked step and scampered away to score.
There was to be one more try before the break, and in a game this open, it was never going to take long for Josh Hodge to get in on the action. The full-back has been in scintillating form and looks dangerous whenever he has his hands on the ball.
Harvey Skinner found space on the kick return and roared into the backfield, finding Hodge on his inside. Tom Cairns was once again free for the pass, but the blonde lightning bolt had other ideas, rounding the poor Bears last man with ease and coasting in for the Chiefs fifth try.
Half-Time Exeter Chiefs 35 – 0 Bristol Bears
The second half began in identical fashion to the first, with the Bears relenting possession and allowing the home side easy attacking ball. It was the debutant Matt Postlethwaite who claimed the score on this occasion, powering under the sticks to top off his first run out at Sandy Park with a try.
As the score line continued to extend, the punishing heat of the day began to take its toll, with inevitable mistake creeping in. Ben Hammersley, scored a lovely solo try with a chip and chase that sent the East Terrace into delirium, whilst Ethan Roots also grabbed himself a debut score that will please the coaches. Dan Frost was his usual bundle of footwork and energy, grabbing himself a score, before Vermeulen and Vintcent rounded out the rout.
There will of course be stiffer tests for the Chiefs in weeks to come, and it is always challenging to measure where you are as a team when there is such disparity between the opponents, but there are plenty of serious positives to be taken.
This is a team that are playing with excitement and flair, unafraid to take risks and keen to play entertaining rugby. The back-three that started this match have an average age of just 21, and as centre partnerships go, Joe Hawkins and Henry Slade are only going to get better with time.
The work that Ross McMillan has done at scrum-time is paying immediate dividends, with this now a source of penalties and rock-solid attacking ball that should free up the talented backline to express themselves.
It is also worth giving notable mentions to some of the players off the bench, with Ross Vintcent in particular standing out. The young Italian U20 captain has been earmarked for some time as someone who will make the transition into the senior team, and he was all-action in an impressive cameo performance, carrying with physicality and intelligent in defence.
It may feel like the last hurrahs of summer, but the Chiefs are only just getting started, and the future looks bright. Inevitably people will roll out cliches, it’s a long season, we’ll take every game as it comes, week-by-week, but for now it’s worth enjoying the warmth brought by a blockbuster showing from Baxter’s young charges.
Chiefs: J Hodge; B Hammersley, H Slade (T Hendrickson 57), J Hawkins (W Haydon-Wood 61), T Wyatt; H Skinner, T Cairns (N Armstrong 52); S Sio (B Keast 50), J Yeandle © (D Frost 50), E Painter (P Schickerling 50); M Postlethwaite. (R Tuima 55) , L Pearson, E Roots (R Vintcent 61), J Vermeulen, G Fisilau.
Tries: Vermeulen (2), Cairns (2), Slade, Hodge, Postlethwaite, Hammersley, Frost, Roots, Vintcent. Conversions: Slade (8), Skinner (2)
Bears: M Jones (T Baker 63) ; I Campbell-Wu (S Hamid 28), H Ascherl, D Power, A Boshoff; S Worsley, S Wolstenholme (O Lennon 52); A Turner (T Sims 44), F Davies ©, J Benz-Salomon (J Halliwell 66); J Caulfield, J Owen, G Taylor, M Duncan (E Harvey 21), P Pearce.
Replacements (Not Used): Gwilliam, Cripps