Hepher hails fighting spirit of his Chiefs
By Mark Stevens
Ali Hepher praised the fighting qualities of his Exeter Chiefs side as they produced a powerful second half display to move back to the top of Pool C in this season’s Premiership Rugby Cup.
Tries from Olly Woodburn, Jacques Vermeulen, Sean Lonsdale and Matt Kvesic, coupled with 14 points from the boot of fly-half Joe Simmonds, proved enough on the night for the Devonians to seal a bonus point victory against a resolute Worcester Warriors outfit at Sixways.
Down 12-7 at the break, then 19-7 early in the second period when home winger Tom Howe collected his third try of the night, the Chiefs had to dig deep into their reserves to eventually claim all five points with the last play of the game.
For Hepher, though, it was a decent enough showing from a squad, many of whom were playing competitively for the first time since the Gallagher Premiership Final at Twickenham back in early June.
The only real downside for the visitors was the loss of three key backs - Ian Whitten, Phil Dollman and Ollie Devoto - to injuries. All were replaced during the second half and meant the visitors were forced to re-jig their back division, even running young scrum-half Sam Maunder at full-back.
Hepher said it was ‘disappointing’ to see all three players forced off, but could offer little update post-game on their conditions, primarily as they were still all being assessed by the club’s medical staff.
Instead, the Chiefs head coach wanted to reflect more on his side’s victory. He said: “We were a little bit rusty, but at the same time you have to give a bit of credit to Worcester, who defended incredibly well and were very resilient for long periods. In the first half we were disappointed to turn over so much ball, but that tends to happen in that first hit up. There were a lot of guys who were away from the club last week, who have come into a short turnaround this week, so it was always going to be tough and we were expecting to be a bit rusty, which we were.
“We said at half-time, we just needed to shift our focus. We were a little bit heads up and looking at the defensive formation and the D in front of us, rather than just focusing on the ball at times. That meant we lost a lot of ball, but second half we tightened that up. We started to play a few balls, got a few show and go’s going, which got us a bit of momentum and we were able to wrestle the game back.
“To finish it off like we did was pleasing, especially because in first hit outs you are often struggling in the last 20. We saw thatagainst Bath a few weeks ago in our first game, where a lot of boys were cramping up, but the guys dug in, were resilient and they found a way to win, which is a key component of our make-up.”
Woodburn’s first half score came from a scintillating training ground move, before the forwards took charge after the break to set-up scores for Vermeulen, Lonsdale and former Warriors favourite, Kvesic. All of those were converted by Simmonds, who also slotted two penalties during the second half.
Hepher was quizzed about the decision to go for posts, a tactic the Chiefs normally decline in search of further reward. However, it proved a key move as it kept Exeter in touch with their hosts at a key period in the game.
“We’ve talked all summer - our policy hasn’t changed - but we have to be aware of making smart decisions at the right times,” explained Hepher. “We probably left a few out there early in the first half, so it wasn’t a shift as such, we should have taken them. That’s part of learning and we always back the guys decisions. If we do go to the corner, we need to be more clinical.
“As I said, we’re pleased with how we got ourselves back into the game, got ourselves within range of that bonus point, and then you saw how the forwards finished the game like a train and got us those two tries we needed.”
With the five points accrued, the victory has put the Chiefs in a powerful position for next Saturday’s final Cup fixture against Bristol Bears at home (3pm).
Again, the Chiefs will be looking to up their game against their near neighbours, but at the same time a semi-final spot is also up for grabs and Hepher is keen that the Devonians make the most of the opportunity they have given themselves.
“100% it’s important, this is ia major competition,” he added. “Look, the big picture of these four weeks is about peaking for the Premiership, but equally we want to win every competition we are in. We will do everything we can to get that semi-final spot. If we were to get that this early in the season, that would be fantastic for us. If we can get a home semi-final, even better, but I don’t know how it will all work out. You never know what is going to happen with results elsewhere, but right now we’re pleased we have got guys up and running, and that we’ve showed some real fight to win the game.”