Radio Exe Match Report: Bristol Bears 14 – 24 Exeter Chiefs

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In front of a packed Ashton Gate crowd, Exeter Chiefs’ bear hunt proved fruitful as they defeated a physical Bristol Bears side in a feisty Friday night encounter to end 2023 on a win.

After an ear-bursting pyrotechnic display to light up the dark night sky and welcome the home side to the pitch, Bristol Bears took the Friday evening kick-off at Ashton Gate.

The pack battle was always going to be contentious, and the Chiefs looked to get the better start in the weighty set-piece. Repeated penalties five minutes in allowed Harvey Skinner to put the ball deep into the Bears 22 for a lineout.

Bears drove the maul towards the touchline, looking to use it as an extra defender, but Chiefs maintained ball. A penalty for not rolling away at the breakdown allowed them t creep that bit closer with a second lineout.

Greg Fisilau timed a pass to Ross Vintcent perfectly off the back of the drive. The young back rower crashed into contact. Patience at the breakdown was key and a couple of recycles was all it took for Josh Iosefa-Scott to power through the one-on-one collision for the try. Henry Slade added the conversion to give the Chiefs the full contingent of points on the board.

Vintcent proved he was here to play on the restart. Collecting ball, he stormed from the edge of his own 22 with ball in hand. On-rushing defenders were closing in at the halfway mark, so the forward dotted a ball off the boot to give chase. He was just nipped to it over the line by Max Malins who was forced to ground ball, but the Exeterman was deemed to have taken the man high in the tackle.

Ten minutes in and the crowd has home points to cheer for. A penalty in their own half cost Chiefs as Bears went for the corner and the maul drive from just five metres out was too strong for the Chiefs men to hold up. Gabriel Oghre crashed over at the defence’s bootstraps for the try with Callum Sheedy adding the extras to bring things level.

Chiefs were over tight into the corner with 21 minutes played. Moving well off a lineout won in the air by Vintcent, there was space and speed of hand to play with. Olly Woodburn timed a step perfectly to run onto the ball and through Bristol’s line. It was a slightly tricky offload to take for Ben Hammersley but he controlled it well, passing immediately out to Immanuel Feyi-Waboso to run in the score tight to the corner flag.

The electric winger was taking off again with less than ten minutes left in the half. Bouncing off Magnus Bradbury and Malins, he was eventually brought down by Rich Lane – the lone last defender. Bristol strayed offside as Chiefs looked to rush their line but the Exeter men infringed on the quick-tap with a knock-on at the breakdown.

Captain Steven Luatua led by example at the end of the half. Tearing his way through the tackle for a line break, he fed James Dun in support with the rambling lock grubbering the ball off his laces to force Hammersley to spin and track back.

Bristol took the call at a messy breakdown. Working ball with lightning pace between their backs allowed winger Noah Heward to quite literally fly over in the corner – one hand reaching down to ground the ball. Sheedy then added the conversion to wrap up the half’s scoring.

Half-time: Bears 14 – 12 Chiefs

A statement was made at the start of the half. Chiefs piled the pressure on from the restart, chasing it down and forcing a knock-on which they gathered from the hosts. Nika Abuladze ran a dummy line in the phases to enable a gap to inch open for Feyi-Waboso. He needed no invitation to run through it, and looked sure for a try before a shirt-grab tackle brought him down on the line.

Experienced scrum half Stu Townsend had the know-how to immediately take the ball himself and cover the lone inch left between the Chiefs and the whitewash for the opening try of the second half.

From try scorer to being sent from the field, a moment of misjudgement cost Townsend as he received a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on on the edge of his own 22 as Bears looked to take the ball down the short-side off a stalled lineout drive.

Despite holding the man-advantage and the attacking momentum, a monstrous tackle from Feyi-Waboso on Dan Thomas and clean work at the resultant breakdown had the referee’s decision coming the way of Chiefs – relieving the pressure.

As Bears looked to be firing up the cylinders for another attacking wave, Woodburn timed a dash for the line perfectly, intercepting the home ball. Despite not having a scrum half on the field – Slade having to come out of position to fill the role – Chiefs worked doggedly at gaining the short yardage with repeated phases deep in Bristol territory. A stray hand scooping ball from Dan Frost’s grasp saw the ball, and Chiefs’ immediate chances of a score, rumbling into touch.

The following period of play was testing for both sides. Bristol struggled to get any real territory or momentum outwith their own half while Chiefs were hampered by handling errors with calls often going against them at the breakdown or underneath the high ball.

Things looked daunting with 10 minutes left to play as a penalty allowed Bristol to go deep into the corner. Working ball off their set-piece, they didn’t account on Fisilau’s commitment to the strip in the tackle. The Exeter man won his ball, keeping patience and possession at the breakdown to allow Townsend to clear.

Chiefs kept in the fight – or should we say hunt, as it was a bear hunt – right to the very death, searching for the all-important bonus point score. Working with fierce physicality in the Bears’ 22, the commitment paid off as the men in their white away strip crashed over through hefty replacement, Jacques Vermeulen.

With Slade’s conversion, the win was sealed. Bristol attempted a fight-back at the death but were smothered by on-rushing Chiefs defence.

And so, the calendar year ends on a high and the Chiefs look to carry real momentum – testament to talent, work-rate and a strong team bond – into the new year. Here’s to 2024.

Full-time: Bears 14 – 24 Chiefs

Bears: M Malins; N Heward, V Vakatawa (Ravouvou 74’), B Janse van Rensburg, R Lane; C Sheedy (Williams 74’), H Randall (Marmion 74’); M Lahiff (Woolmore 40’), G Oghre (Capon 68’), K Sinckler (Kloska 68’), J Dun (Caulfield 66’), J Batley, S Luatua (c), D Thomas (Owen 79’), M Bradbury.

Tries: Oghre, Heward Conversions: Sheedy 2

Chiefs: B Hammersley; I Feyi-Waboso, H Slade, O Devoto (Hawkins 55’), O Woodburn (Wimbush 62’); H Skinner, S Townsend (Cairns 79’); N Abuladze (Hepburn 52’), D Frost (Norey 52’), J Iosefa-Scott (Street 52’), R Tuima (Pearson 58’), D Jenkins (c), E Roots, R Vintcent (Vermeulen 58’), G Fisilau.

Tries: Iosefa-Scott, Feyi-Waboso, Townsend, Vermeulen Conversions: Slade 2

Yellow card: Stu Townsend

Referee: Christophe Ridley

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