Match Reaction - Rob Baxter
By Mark Stevens
For a second time in six months, Exeter Chiefs endured late heartache at the hands of rivals Harlequins.
Whereas in June it was the Gallagher Premiership title that the Londoners scooped up, this time round it was Marcus Smith’s last-gasp conversion that proved the difference in an absorbing encounter at The Stoop.
Rob Baxter’s side - who had to play the entire second half a man down following the dismissal of prop Alec Hepburn - gave everything in their quest for victory. Sadly, it was not to be as Andre Esterhuizen and Smith combined to inch their side home 14-12.
It was a tough pill to swallow for the Devonians, but Baxter refused to be too downbeat in his post-match assessment.
“It’s a tough one to talk about in a lot of ways,” he said. “Yes, we’re disappointed to have lost a tight game, but everything else I can’t fault. Like any game of rugby, especially in those conditions, we made some errors - but on the whole, I thought our endeavour, our energy and our willingness to stay in the fight, those are the commodities you want to see. Today, they were all there, but we came up a bit short at the end.”
In a tight first half, Harlequins took an early lead through Luke Northmore’s converted score, only for the Chiefs to counter just past the half-hour mark when Henry Slade strode over for a wonderful score of his own.
But with the clock in the red at the end of the first 40 minutes, then came the pivotal moment in the match when Hepburn and Sam Simmonds got together to clear Joe Marler out of a ruck. Both grabbed him around a leg and drove him back, but referee Ian Tempest adjudged Hepburn had not discharged his responsibility to put the England prop down safely.
Following a conversation with the TMO David Rose, Hepburn was dismissed and will now await his fate in front of an RFU Disciplinary hearing later this week.
In his absence, his team-mates rallied valiantly in the second period, even taking the lead when replacement Jack Innard powered over from a close-range drive for his first try in four years.
Sadly, Joe Simmonds could not convert and the miss proved telling as Esterhuizen’s late score was duly dispatched by Smith, via the far post, to win the game for the defending champions.
“I have to give the players great credit because they adjusted very well at half time,” added Baxter. “What you saw was a massive amount of energy put into the important things around things like kick chase, defence and discipline. Our forwards were also very good around the set-piece, so I can’t fault them and I’m proud of the the effort we showed. All we have to do now is build on those qualities by collecting a few more points.”
Baxter refused to comment on Hepburn’s red card, but outlined how the loss of the forward meant his half time chat became a lot more simplified.
“We said we had to play more towards the forwards and that there would be a lot more based around our kick chase,” he explained. “At the same time, we had to stay strong around our set-piece and then try and hold some width and look to get Simmo (Sam Simmonds) into the back line as much as we could.
“I often say, a losing bonus point is like a par score away from home. For us, it’s far from the end of the world. To come so close to drawing, even winning the game, it’s tough to take, but there was some real good stuff from us to build from.”
And that building process continues this coming Saturday when the Chiefs return to Heineken Champions Cup action at home to Glasgow Warriors, who beat Baxter side last month in the same competition.
“We have points to prove after that game,” said Baxter. “Glasgow were good on the day, but we weren’t great either. Now, we have to focus - starting on Monday - on the good things from today and really build into what I hope will be a big few weeks of European action.”