Gloucester 34 Chiefs 18
Exeter Chiefs 18
Mark Stevens at Kingsholm
Whilst bigger things undoubtedly lie ahead for Exeter Chiefs in the coming weeks and months, Rob Baxter admitted lessons would need to be learnt in the wake of this defeat away to Gloucester.
Up against a youthful Chiefs outfit, the Cherry & Whites gained revenge for their earlier defeat by the champions by securing maximum reward in this latest outing at Kingsholm.
For only the sixth time in the past three years, Devon’s finest failed to emerge from a top-flight encounter with any reward.
In truth, though, the Chiefs could - and probably should - have headed home with at least something. For long periods they more than matched their more experienced hosts, who had boosted by the return of Six Nations flyers Jonny May and Louis Reece-Zammit.
However, a powerful late rally from Gloucester proved too much, gifting them the victory and a scoreline which looked more convincing than it really was in reality.
With Baxter handing first Premiership starts to four of his starting line-up, it was a nervy Chiefs who struggled to contain a powerful opening blast from the home side
Young centre Dan John, one of the aforementioned quartet, coughed up two early penalties that allowed the home side to position themselves deep behind enemy lines. With the second kick punted into the corner, Gloucester used the resultant set-piece to rumble hooker Henry Walker over for the game’s opening try on four minutes.
So early in the contest, it looked a somewhat ominous sign, particularly given the ease in which the home side were able to cross the whitewash.
The Chiefs, however, regrouped quickly and within a flash had hauled themselves back into the game with a contender for try of the season. Fielding a kick on his own 10m line, little appeared to be on for full-back Josh Hodge as he looked ahead and saw a sea of red-clad defenders.
But, as he set off at a rate of knots, going cross-field - everything you are taught not to do as a youngster - he jettisoned past a flurry of home defenders before advancing into the sight of opposite number Santiago Carreras.
The Argentinian sized him well enough, but he didn’t even get a finger on Hodge as he stepped around him, before turning on the after burners and scorching his way to the try-line for the score.
It was a magical first Premiership try for the 20-year-old, whose effort would undoubtedly have been applauded even had Kingsholm been packed to the rafters.
Buoyed by Hodge’s effort, the Chiefs suddenly had the bit between their teeth, launching a flurry of attacks on their counterparts, whose cause was not helped with the sin-binning of Billy Twelvetrees for a high tackle in midfield.
His indiscretion not only earned him a ten-minute stint in the cooler, but it gifted Harvey Skinner a simple penalty, which he dispatched with ease to put his side in front for the first time.
The fly-half was then on hand to add the extras to Exeter’s second try on 17 minutes. Working the ball inside to Rus Tuima, the young No.8 barrelled his way through the heart of the Gloucester midfield, before the ball was recycled at pace through a series of hands, the last of which were Don Armand’s.
It was no more than the Chiefs deserved for their efforts, but Gloucester - now back to their full entitlement - were refusing to go quietly. Indeed, they reduced the arrears when Walker stole over for his second of the game, the hooker producing a near carbon-copy of his earlier effort, which George Barton was able to convert.
Like two prized fighters, the two sides continued to slug it out as the first half ticked by. First the Chiefs pressed in attack, only for Hodge to kick possession away, before Gloucester countered down field, Skinner producing a superb try-saving tackle to deny home skipper Lewis Ludlow just a couple of yards from the line.
With the half all but up, England winger May thought he had squeezed over in the left-hand corner following a slick handling move, but following a consult with the TMO, referee Luke Pearce adjudged the speedster had gone into touch in the process of dotting down.
HALF TIME GLOUCESTER 14 EXETER CHIEFS 15
Gloucester were forced into change during the interval, replacing experienced scrum-half Will Heinz with Charlie Chapman, and the young nine was quickly into the action as he helped set the attacking tone for the hosts on the resumption.
The Chiefs, however, were digging deep into their defensive reserves as George Skivington’s side opted for greater reward than potential shots at goal.
It was a bold tactic from the home side and it appeared to backfire on them as Armand stole a five-metre line-out that the Chiefs were able to transfer down field through two clever kicks from Sam Hidalgo-Clyne.
Unfortunately, the visitors could not maintain their pressure at the other end and when Gloucester attacked again, this time they made the important breakthrough as Chapman spotted a gap in the Exeter defence to squirm over for a third converted try.
Barton - who was on the money all night with his right boot - added a penalty to extend his side’s lead to nine points, before the Chiefs themselves looked to click back into gear.
Skinner had the chance to reduce the deficit with a penalty chance but, like a golfer returning to the course this Monday, he shanked his effort wide of the mark.
It was unfortunate on his part, but it at least showed the Chiefs were still very much in the fight as the game headed toward the final quarter.
Replacement Stu Townsend was introduced from the bench for the visitors and his first meaningful action was to tap quickly from another penalty award. Sadly, he was the only Chief on that wavelength and with little support following his lone raid, he was turned over and the chance lost.
Townsend’s introduction was helping to get the Chiefs moving quicker and when they threatened again, the experienced No.9 thought he had claimed a third try for the visitors with a close-range snipe. Referee Pearce was confident his claims were unfounded, but he was persuaded to go for a review.
Sadly, for Townsend, the replays didn’t look great as he spilled the ball in his attempt to touchdown. Although there would be no try scored, Pearce did come back for a penalty, which Skinner landed, to put the Chiefs back within bonus point range.
Had the whistle gone there and then, Baxter and his team would happily have trooped back down the M5 with plenty to be happy with. Sadly, there were a handful of minutes left and it was Gloucester who made the most of them.
First, Barton slotted a penalty after Exeter replacement Alfie Petch was sin-binned for a culmination of team offences, then - with the final play of the game - the hosts got the all-important bonus point, courtesy of a penalty try, after the Chiefs pack had crumbled under pressure from a line-out drive.
It was a tough outcome on the Chiefs given their spirited efforts, but they must now quickly regroup for the visit of French outfit Lyon in the Champions Cup next Saturday
Gloucester: S Carreras; L Rees-Zammit, B Twelvetrees, M Atkinson, J May; G Barton, W Heinz (C Chapman h/t); V Rapava-Ruskin (A Seville 56), H Walker(S Socino 68), F Balmain (J Ford-Robinson 61); E Slater, M Alemanno (F Clarke 68); J Reid (J Clement 68), L Ludlow (capt), R Ackermann. Replacements (not used): B Morgan, C Sharples.
Tries - Walker (2), Chapman, Penalty Try; Conversions - Barton (3); Penalties - Barton (2)
Yellow Card: Twelvetrees
Chiefs: J Hodge; O Woodburn, D John, C Baldwin (J Short 68), F Cordero; H Skinner, S Hidalgo-Clyne (S Townsend 52); J Kenny (D Southworth 57), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 68), M Street (A Petch 56); S Lonsdale (W Witty 57), T Price; D Armand, R Capstick, R Tuima (C Wright 61). Replacement (not used): A Relton.
Tries - Hodge, Armand; Conversion - H Skinner; Penalties - H Skinner (2)
Yellow Cards: Petch, Price
Referee: L Pearce