Gloucester 17 Chiefs 29
Exeter Chiefs 29
Mark Stevens at Kingsholm
A bit like the Incredible Hulk, you don’t want to make the Exeter Chiefs angry.
Undone on home soil for the first time since February by Gloucester the week previous, Rob Baxter’s side gained sweet revenge by claiming their first Heineken Champions Cup victory of the season.
Tries from Sam Skinner, Don Armand, Jack Yeandle and Harry Williams, plus kicks from Gareth Steenson, ensured the Devonians kept alive any hopes of qualification from Pool Two with just two fixtures remaining next month.
Gloucester, meanwhile, were left to lick their wounds as they countered with a brace from Jason Woodward and another from Tom Hudson.
Knowing nothing less than a victory would suffice, the Chiefs - who showed nine changes to their starting line-up - spelt out their intent from the outset, declining a kickable penalty on four minutes in search of greater bounty.
Although that initial chance, plus another just minutes later, came and went without reward, the Chiefs clearly had the mind-set of all-out attack as they bossed the opening exchanges.
Sam Hill, Jack Maunder and Joe Simmonds, all of whom had been added to the Chiefs mix, all threatened sufficiently to win another close-range penalty which, as they had done previously, the visitors declined to kick at goal.
This is not an unusual tactic, it took until Round Four of the Premiership this season before Baxter’s side opted for a shot at the target, but with little to lose on the night, the risk was certainly worth taking.
Gloucester may have thought they had done enough to stymie the Chiefs threat, but when home prop Fraser Balmain coughed up another soft penalty, Baxter’s side would not let this latest opportunity pass. A succession of close-range, pick-and-go drives were making inroads, only for the hosts to once more fall foul of French referee Mathieu Raynal.
Steenson, as he done a handful of times before, kicked to the corner, the Chiefs won the resultant set-piece and it was Scottish International Skinner, who arose from the mass of bodies to take the acclaim of his team-mates. Steenson slotted the conversion to give his side maximum reward.
At the other end, Gloucester looked to counter almost immediately as Danny Cipriani spiralled a wonderful kick to within five metres of the Exeter try-line. However, the Chiefs went mob-handed to repel the home threat, not only stopping them at source, but ultimately winning turnover possession to clear their lines.
Gloucester, though, weren’t done and when Tomas Francis did well to stave off a break from Owen Williams, they recycled their way through a catalogue of phases to finally work the opening for Kiwi full-back Woodward to cross for their opening try of the night.
With defences ruling the roost for a large part of the first half, it was the work of Tom O’Flaherty, initially in attack, then defence, which paved the way for Exeter’s second try. Working off turnover ball, the London-born winger chipped over the top with a perfectly-weighted kick, which forced Cipriani to race across and cover in his own in-goal area.
The England international did enough to stave off O'Flaherty, but his actions did mean a five-metre scrum for the visitors. Again, more penalties flowed for the visitors, such was their dominance in this area all night.
The pressure, however, was mounting and having had a potential try chalked off on review with the TMO for a non-grounding, the Chiefs struck with the last move of the half, forcing the opening for Armand to bulldoze his way over for a second Exeter score.
HALF TIME GLOUCESTER 5 EXETER CHIEFS 14
The score just before the break was just reward for a strong first half showing from the Chiefs, who were given an early boost just after the restart when Gloucester lost centre Billy Twelvetrees to a yellow card.
Now with a man advantage, as well as the scoreboard advantage, Baxter’s outfit once again looked to press forward in attack. Gloucester, it has to be said, were holding firm - and despite intense bombardment around their line from the Chiefs, they not only held out during the absence of Twelvetrees, but they were able to do enough to position themselves down the other end of the field.
The game continued to swing from end-to-end, but it was the Chiefs who continued to offer the greater threat. Hill went close when he latched onto a clever ‘quarterback-style’ throw from Yeandle, before Steenson edged his side further in front when he popped over a scrum penalty from in front of the sticks just before the hour mark.
Spurred on by a vociferous home support, particularly in the notorious ’Shed’, Gloucester regrouped well and they were given reason to raise the decibels a little louder when Williams and the in-form Ollie Thorley combined impressively to send Woodward over for his second try of the night.
Back within a converted score, Gloucester suddenly had the bit between their teeth. Skipper Willi Heinz and Thorley launched another counter-attack, this time from deep inside their own 22, and it made decent inroads into Exeter territory before O’Flaherty scrambled back to save the day.
It was gripping stuff from both teams, who knew their European existence depended on them producing some late heroics. Thankfully, it would be the Chiefs who finish the stronger. Props Ben Moon and Harry Williams added some real impetus to the front-row, while the sizeable frame of Mitch Lees was another key asset in winning yet more scrum penalties late on.
And it was from one of them that the Chiefs were able to strike for a third time. Yeandle went short with a line-out to Tom Lawday, the remainder of the forwards assembled around the No.8, and it was the Exeter hooker who was able to plough through the middle of the maul to touchdown.
Gloucester, however, were far from done and when the home side hit back almost immediately through Hudson, the replacement running round after good work from Freddie Clarke and Ben Morgan, all of a sudden It was ‘game on’ once more for both sides.
Kingsholm was alive and kicking once more as the hosts now went in search of some late reward. The Chiefs, though, were proving miserly in defence and having pegged their rivals back deep inside their own half, it forced the Cherry & Whites to go for broke.
Williams attempted to go for a chip over the top, but Simmonds read it like a book, gobbling up possession and then setting off on a direct run through the heart of the home defence. The Welshman atoned for his loose kick by felling the Chiefs full-back, but the Exeter cavalry was close at hand. In an instance, the forwards had assembled in numbers to work the opening for Williams to drive over for a decisive, bonus-point score.
The Travelling Tribe erupted into a wall of noise, whilst the celebrations both on the Chiefs bench and in the coaching booth at the back of the main stand, underlined just how important a result this was.
For now, the Chiefs remain alive and kicking in Europe’s top club competition. They will resume battle again next month when, who knows what might happen in their quest for glory.
Gloucester: J Woodward; C Sharples (A Seville 72), B Twelvetrees, O Williams, O Thorley; D Cipriani (T Hudson 38), W Heinz (capt, C Braley 69); J Hohneck, J Visagie, F Balmain (C Knight 75); E Slater, F Mostert (G Grobler 75); F Clarke, G Evans (A Craig 66), B Morgan. Replacements (not used): H Walker, M Banahan.
Tries - Woodward (2), Hudson; Conversion - Twelvetrees
Yellow Cards: Twelvetrees, Hohneck
Exeter Chiefs: J Simmonds; S Cordero (O Devoto 59), I Whitten, S Hill (P Dollman 66), T O’Flaherty; G Steenson, J Maunder; A Hepburn (B Moon 48), J Yeandle (capt), T Francis (H Williams 48); D Dennis (M Lees 59), S Skinner (W Van der Sluys 77); S Lonsdale, D Armand, T Lawday. Replacements (not used): E Taione, S Maunder.
Tries - Skinner, Armand, Yeandle, Williams; Conversions - Steenson (3); Penalty - Steenson
Referee: M Raynal (France)