Gloucester 24 Chiefs 17
Exeter Chiefs 17
Mark Stevens at Kingsholm
Exeter Chiefs could be forgiven for thinking it was a case of deja vu as for the second successive season they were undone right at the death by rivals Gloucester in the Gallagher Premiership.
Whereas last season it was Jason Woodward who pounced in the dying embers, this time round it was Ben Morgan who inflicted the telling blow on Rob Baxter's side.
Morgan's late touchdown was not without controversy, however.
In the build-up to the England No.8 powering his way over just two minutes from the final whistle, it appeared Chiefs wing Tom O'Flaherty had been deliberately blocked out in his attempt to collar opposite number Ollie Thorley. Given free passage to roam, Thorley's break down the left allowed him to provide the attacking platform from which the Cherry & Whites were able to claim their match-winning score.
Even then, the drama was far from over as the Chiefs threw everything at their rivals with the last passage of play. Camped under the Gloucester posts, somehow the hosts did enough to repel the multiple raids before referee Craig Maxwell-Keys blew for time.
It signalled the end to a titanic tussle between the two sides, who throughout had traded some hefty blows in pursuit of victory.
Back in top-flight action for the first time since early January, it was familiar foes that provided the opposition for Baxter’s side in this Round 13 encounter. In what was the fourth meeting between the two clubs this season, the Chiefs arrived at Kingsholm looking to add a third triumph to their tally.
Although minus six of their frontline stars who had been retained by England head coach Eddie Jones for the week, it was still a powerful line-up that the Devonians were able to parade on this return to action.
Gloucester, meanwhile, were at full-strength for the encounter, welcoming back Ruan Ackermann, Tom Marshall andWoodward after lengthy spells on the sidelines.
With personnel in place, the opening minutes were largely restricted to a game of ‘kick tennis’ as the two sides went blow for blow with an array of lengthy kicks, all of which were aimed at looking to glean crucial territory.
When some running rugby finally broke out, it was the visitors who made the first impression. Maxwell-Keys pulled up Ackermann for not releasing at a ruck and that allowed Joe Simmonds to drill a penalty deep into the Gloucester 22.
Gifted the perfect attacking platform, Sean Lonsdale collected the resultant line-out at the tail - and although the initial drive was held well by the Cherry & Whites - Aussie international Nic White took control of proceedings, grabbing the ball from the maul and darting through a yawning gap in the home defence to claim the opening try of the night, which was duly converted by Simmonds.
It was the perfect start for the league leaders, but Gloucester were quick to respond, cutting the deficit inside four minutes when Danny Cipriani was able to stroke over a routine penalty after Dave Ewers was singled out by the officials for not rolling away.
Cipriani’s kick warmed the vocal chords of the majority inside Kingsholm and they had further reason to make some noise when first Cipriani and Morgan combined down the left, only for the latter to be denied by a great cover tackle; then, moments later, Woodward really should have scored, butchering a certain try when he dropped the ball having been sent clear by the soft hands of Cipriani.
Although the Chiefs were able to breath a huge sigh of relief on that occasion, when Kiwi full-back Woodward was afforded another sniff of the Exeter line, this time he made no mistake claiming the home side’s opening try. He applied the finish to a pass from Ollie Thorley, who in the build-up had plucked a Cipriani cross-field kick out of the night sky.
As the half ticked by, so Gloucester continued to pile forwards in numbers. Chances came and went on a number of occasions, but either poor handling or, more often than not, stout Exeter defence, kept the scoreline untouched as the two teams headed for the sheds.
HALF TIME GLOUCESTER 10 EXETER CHIEFS 7
With little to choose between either side, it was the Chiefs - much like they did in the opening 40 minutes - who were first to show on the resumption. Winger Tom O’Flaherty threatened with a clever switch back move in the middle of the pitch, but when White looked to release his back division again, Heinz crudely came in from the side, gifting the visitors a penalty.
Unlike normal protocol for the Chiefs, fly-half Simmonds this time declined to kick for the corner, instead firing over a kick from 35 metres to level the game up at 10-10.
Parity, though, remained in place only a matter of minutes as back roared Gloucester. Hard-running from the home forwards created several sizeable dents in the Exeter defensive line, before Heinz snuck his way over from close range to claim his side's second try, which was converted by Billy Twelvetrees for the second time on the night.
Although Gloucester's lead was slender, they continued to push forward in numbers and they came within a whisker of adding a third score just before the hour mark. This time, though, a combination of Santiago Cordero and Tom Hendrickson did enough to dislodge the ball from Thorley's grasp as he looked destined to touchdown.
Still very much alive in the contest, it was the turn of the Chiefs to showcase their skills in attack, drawing level once more with a strike move right off the training paddock. Playing the ball off the top of a line-out, replacement Gareth Steenson set former Gloucester favourite Matt Kvesic on a marauding run right through the middle, before he drew in the cover and offloaded to O'Flaherty, who raced his way over for a first-ever Premiership try.
Master marksman Steenson obliged with the extras to make it 17-17, whilst at the other end Twelvetrees saw his impressive run of goalkicking come to an abrupt end when he failed to hit the target with two penalty chances in the final 10 minutes.
However, just as it looked as though the game was heading for a share of the spoils, it was Gloucester who struck, Morgan delivering the decisive moment that ensured his side moved into third spot.
For the Chiefs, a losing bonus point was their scant reward, but they remain in pole position at the summit and still in fine fettle with just eight rounds of the scheduled season remaining.
Gloucester: J Woodward (M Banahan 71); T Marshall, B Twelvetrees, M Atkinson (O Williams 74), O Thorley; D Cipriani, W Heinz (capt, C Braley 77); J Hohneck (P McAllister 65), F Marais (J Hanson 65), F Balmain (C Knight 65); T Savage (G Grobler 65), F Mostert; F Clarke, R Ackermann (L Ludlow 71), B Morgan.
Tries - Woodward, Heinz, Morgan; Conversions -Twelvetrees (3); Penalty - Cipriani
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman (G Steenson 58); S Cordero, I Whitten (T Hendrickson 45), S Hill, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, N White; A Hepburn (B Keast 62), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 62), T Francis (G Holmes 58); D Dennis (M Lees 54), J Hill; D Ewers, S Lonsdale, M Kvesic. Replacements (not used): R Capstick, J Maunder.
Tries - White, O’Flaherty; Conversions - J Simmonds, Steenson; Penalty - J Simmonds
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys