Sale 14 Chiefs 20
Sale Sharks 14
Exeter Chiefs 20
Mark Stevens at The AJ Bell Stadium
Make no mistake, this was a brutal battle.
Fighting it out in the quest for valuable league points, by the time these two Premiership heavyweights wake-up tomorrow, the blood may have been vanished, but the scars of battle will still be clearly evident.
In the end, it was Exeter Chiefs who delivered the telling blows, maintaining their three-point lead at the top of the Gallagher Premiership by flooring rivals Sale Sharks for a second time this season.
First half tries from Ollie Devoto and Don Armand paved the way for their latest triumph, after which replacement Sean Lonsdale added another to go alongside a five-point haul from fly-half Gareth Steenson.
The Sharks countered with converted second half scores of their own through Sam James and Will Cliff, but it was the visitors who flew their way back to the Westcountry celebrating another crucial step towards securing an all-important home semi-final come May.
Having returned to the summit of the table with victory over Newcastle Falcons, Baxter saw little reason to tinker with his winning formula too much. In fact, the sole change in personnel came on the bench where Elvis Taione provided hooker back-up in place of Jack Innard.
The Sharks, meanwhile, were virtually at full-strength and paraded a wealth of star names in their line-up, including livewire scrum-half Faf De Klerk, Wallaby James O’Connor, winger Denny Solomona and the industrious Jono Ross in the back-row.
With a swirling wind at their backs during the opening half, it was the visitors who started the brighter, taking the lead inside five minutes when Steenson plundered a routine penalty from in front of the posts after Van Rensburg had been pulled up by referee Ian Tempest for not releasing.
It was a tidy start from the table-toppers, who then had to withstand some heavy pressure from the Sharks.De Klerk, not surprisingly was very much at the heart of things, sniping around a series of rucks and generally causing a decent amount of concern in the Exeter ranks.
Thankfully for the visitors, many of his team-mates were not quite as sharp, conceding a catalogue of unforced errors that allowed the Devonians to not only clear the danger, but at the same time get themselves back on the front foot.
Indeed, having soaked up the pressure, the Chiefs tore a bite out of the Sharks, claiming the game’s first try midway through the half. Seizing on turnover possession, it was Cordero’s break down the left flank which caused the initial panic within the home ranks. However, as he ran out of space and defenders aplenty converged on him, he somehow got the ball back inside to Devoto who, with some fancy footballing skills, gathered possession and crossed in the corner.
Referee Tempest was unsure as to the validity of the score, but after a lengthy spell of referral, it was deemed the Exeter man had just stayed in field and the try was awarded.Steenson, using the wind to his advantage, plundered over the testing touchline conversion to make it a full house.
Happily in charge of proceedings, Baxter’s side continued to soak up the Sale pressure, before adding a second try on the stroke of half time.Having set up camp deep within the Sale 22, the mounting pressure finally paid dividends when England international Armand found his way over from close range.
HALF TIME SALE SHARKS 0 EXETER CHIEFS 15
Now with the elements in their face, the Chiefs knew to expect a response of sorts from the Sharks. To a man, however, a swathe of early pressure was not only soaked up by some resolute defence, but they contained the threat with a steely determination that will have excited not only Baxter, but defence coach Julian Salvi.
Time and time again, Exeter’s ‘White Wall’ merged as one to repel the ever-growing wave of Sale attacks. A number of penalties were conceded in their attempts to keep out their rivals, but each time the Sharks opted for kicks to the corner, only to be dented when their attempts to play the Chiefs at their own game ended in disappointment.
Eventually, though, the pressure did pay off when, using the advantage off another penalty, they worked the opening for fly-half James to race in under the sticks for their opening try just past the hour mark. De Klerk slotted the conversion and all of a sudden the natives were awoken.
Home cheers proved short-lived, however, as minutes later the Chiefs not only found some decent territory down field, but they too made the most of a high tackle from Jono Ross to work the numbers game out wide, creating the opening for Lonsdale to drive his way over for a maiden try in the Premiership.
It was certainly a moment to savour for the young forward, who hails from these parts, and his touchdown was duly rejoiced by a large nucleus of his family who had packed into the main stand.
Although Steenson’s conversion attempt drifted just wide, the Chiefs had a 13-point buffer and were well positioned to close out the final throws of the contest. That was until a former Chief, Byron McGuigan, reminded his old employers of his attacking capabilities. Released in midfield after a slick handling move, the Scottish international picked a lovely line through the middle, drew in the cover, before offloading to Cliff, who had the easiest of finishes under the sticks.
James converted and all of a sudden it was game on again.
However, the Chiefs themselves still had plenty left in the tank and sensing they may well snatch a try bonus, they threw caution to the wind with a late attacking flurry.Alex Cuthbert, Olly Woodburn and Ian Whitten, a father to twin boys this past week, led the charge. However, just as it looked like the visitors were set to pounce, the award of a forward pass against them, curtailed the threat and the moment was gone.
The action, though, was far from finished and with the game into the last minute, Sale threatened once more.Cliff grabbed hold of possession, he darted one way, then another, but was then pole-axed when he collided heads with Ewers in full flight. It was a sickening collision for both men, who were floored in an instance. Thankfully, after a period of time, both got up and were able to depart stage right.
And when the game restarted with a scrum, it was the Chiefs who masterfully closed out the contest, producing yet more hard-nosed defence that augurs well moving forward.
Sale Sharks: L James (D Solomona 76); D Solomona (A Reed 73), J O’Connor (C Redpath 73), R Van Rensburg, B McGuigan; S James, F de Klerk (W Cliff 73-80); V Morozov (T Bristow 53), R Webber (C Langdon 57), W John (J Jones 73), B Evans, J Phillips (A Ostrikov 58); J Ross (capt), B Curry, J Strauss (C Nield 4-14).
Tries - James, Cliff; Conversions - De Klerk, James
Exeter Chiefs: S Cordero; A Cuthbert (J Simmonds 76), I Whitten, O Devoto (S Hill 60), O Woodburn; G Steenson, N White; A Hepburn (B Keast 58), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 58), G Holmes (M Street 58); D Dennis (M Lees 60), J Hill; D Ewers (M Kvesic 80), D Armand, M Kvesic (S Lonsdale 50). Replacement (not used): J Maunder.
Tries - Devoto, Armand, Lonsdale; Conversion - Steenson; Penalty - Steenson
Referee: I Tempest