Match Report: Bristol Bears 31 Exeter Chiefs 36
The Exeter Chiefs got the 23/24 campaign off to a winning start in a breathless encounter against their nearest neighbours.
It was an end-to-end battle, with both sides opting to throw caution to the wind with their attacking play, whilst also dealing with the inevitable ring-rustiness that four months without competitive rugby brings.
After a free flowing first forty, the game became stickier in the second half as both sides rang the changes, but ultimately it was the Chiefs who ran out the victors leaving Rob Baxter and his team heading back down the M5, the happier of the two sides.
The game began well for the visitors, getting onto the attack early with some lovely, free-flowing phase play. It's been a long hard pre-season, and even longer since their last competitive match, so the Chiefs were eager to blow away the cobwebs and there was real venom in the early carries with players queuing to get their hands on the ball.
It wasn’t long before there were Exeter players roaming around Ashton Gate in open space, Devoto dropping a delicate chip into space for Tom Wyatt to gather. The gliding winger, who enjoyed a real breakthrough season last time out, offloaded to a returning Tom Hendrickson who powered into the Bears 22. A knock-on brought that attack to an end, but the scene was set.
However, it was the home side who troubled the scoreboard first. Another chip over the top from Exeter found grass but this time it was a cruel bounce that undid the attack. It landed in the arms of Bristol full-back, Rich Lane, who danced between the disjointed Chiefs defence to dot down under the posts. It was a lovely piece of individual skill, with McGinty converting to put the Bears 7-0 in front after eight minutes.
The Chiefs weren’t down for long and following a period of sustained pressure inside Bears territory, the visitors were awarded a penalty try, with referee Sara Cox sending Harry Randall to the bin for tackling Tom Cairns in an offside position and preventing the score. It was nothing less than the Chiefs deserved and brought them level.
Just two minutes later, Exeter were over again, this time thanks to the magic of Josh Hodge. The full-back coasting through the Bristol Bears defence on an outside ark that the young blonde flash of lightning makes look truly effortless. He fed inside to Wyatt who had a stroll over the line.
There were just three minutes before the Bears hit back, driving the ball deep into Chiefs territory and from the subsequent attacking line-out, the home side went to their maul. With only two outfield players left, the thirteen men of Bristol powered over the line and hit back, the score Bristol 12, Exeter 14, after just 18 minutes of play.
One of the things that the Chiefs coaching staff have been putting emphasis on throughout this summer has been the importance of the set-piece. With new scrum coach Ross McMillan on board, it’s clear that the pack have been laying the foundations in an area of the game that caused them some problems last season. After getting on the front foot in the opening exchanges, on the 25-minute mark the Chiefs put the hammer down and blew away the Bears eight with serious power. Big green tick in that box.
Both sides were settling into the rhythm of the game, and the battle became focussed on the middle of the park. The Chiefs defence brough serious line-speed, rushing up and putting the home side under immense pressure, with Bristol struggling to string any phases together under the onslaught.
Josh Hodge was out to make a statement, and it was another of his mazy runs which brought about the Chiefs third try. Off the back of a solid set-piece, the ball spread wide to the full-back, who danced through the Bears defence before pinning his ears back. Once again he found Wyatt on his inside, and the winger offloaded one-handed through a tackle, to scrum-half Tom Cairns who dived over to score.
It looked as though the visitors were going in at the break with a healthy lead, but the Bears weren’t about to lie down. Silly back-chat after winning another scrum penalty saw referee Cox reverse her decision allowing Bristol easy field position, from there they spread the ball wide to dot down in the corner. Frustration for the Chiefs coaches after a very promising first forty minutes.
Half-Time Bristol Bears 19 – 21 Exeter Chiefs
The second half saw the Chiefs deploy an entirely different 15, led by Jacques Vermeulen who took over the captaincy roll from Jack Yeandle. With the Bears ringing plenty of changes of their own, the game lost some of the shape and fluidity that the 2500 supporters inside Ashton Gate had enjoyed in the opening forty.
The Bears struck first, the visitors getting caught narrow in defence with Bears replacement scrum-half Sam Wolstenholme scoring under the sticks after some nice hands across the backline.
This Exeter team have placed brotherhood and togetherness at the heart of their pre-season and it was clear that they were going to work hard for one another.
Patrick Schickerling has made a name for himself scoring tries, and he starts the 23/24 season with a similar verve for finding the whitewash. The powerful tighthead picked up the ball mid-way into the opposition 22, driving into the defensive line with Max Norey joining as a latcher. The two front-rowers pumped the legs and carried the poor would-be tackler up and over the line. All even on the hour mark 26-26.
The Bears returned to their maul for their final try but it was the team from Devon who finished the stronger, with Kofi Barton-Byfield collecting a lovely crossfield kick to dot down for his first try in a Chiefs shirt, before Ross Vintcent drove over for the winning score inside the final ten minutes.
Rob Baxter was keen to point out in the week that the result of this game didn’t matter, but winning is a habit and this was a Chiefs side that looked eager to make sure that they got off to a strong start. It’s back to Sandy Park next weekend, which even during a challenging 22/23 season proved an important fortress for Exeter. The opponents, Bristol Bears, as the Premiership Cup campaign gets underway.
Chiefs First Half: J Hodge; B Hammersley, T Hendrickson, O Devoto, T Wyatt; H Skinner, T Cairns; S Sio, J Yeandle (c), E Painter; M Postlethwaite, L Pearson (A Bell 35); E Roots, R Capstick, G Fisilau. Replacements (not used): O Burrows, J Iosefa-Scott, J Kenny, J Kpoku, J Bailey, K James, J Snow.
Chiefs Second Half: C McCaig; K Barton-Byfield, R O'Laughlin, C Ribbons, A Relton; W Haydon-Wood, W Becconsall (J Snow 75); B Keast, M Norey, P Schickerling; J Dunne, R Tuima (J Kpoku 77); A Davis (K James 77), J Vermeulen (c), R Vintcent. Replacements (not used): O Burrows, J Iosefa-Scott, J Kenny, J Bailey.
Tries - Pen, Wyatt, Cairns, Schickerling, Barton Byfield, Vintcent; Conversion - Skinner (2)
Referee: S Cox