Sale Sharks 25 Exeter Chiefs 20
Sale Sharks 25
Exeter Chiefs 20
Mark Stevens at the AJ Bell Stadium
The mark of a great champion is they never know when they are beaten - and for 86 minutes here in Salford, the Exeter Chiefs gave as good as they got against rivals Sale Sharks.
With the clock deep into the red, Rob Baxter’s blooded warriors propelled themselves from one end of the field to the other, looking to deliver what they hoped would be a knock-out blow.
Having slugged it out for the best part of an hour with a man down following the first half dismissal of skipper Jack Yeandle, the reigning Gallagher Premiership champions in the end came up just short as a last-gasp line-out failed to hit the mark.
Sale had knocked off one of English Rugby’s prized fighters to move themselves into the top four, whilst at the same time ending a five-year winning streak for the Chiefs at the AJ Bell Stadium.
For the Chiefs, it signalled a second successive league defeat inside a week, this following their narrow home loss to Northampton Saints. However, the losing bonus point was only a small crumb of comfort on a night when they know they could easily have headed home triumphant.
Buoyed by the return of South African Jacques Vermeulen, one of four changes the visitors made to their starting line-up ahead of kick-off, the Chiefs were slow to start and were punished inside four minutes as the Sharks claimed the game’s opening score.
With South African scrum-half Faf de Klerk keen to set the tone, the World Cup winning ace made the most of a quick tap penalty to instigate the attack that send former Chiefs player Byron McGuigan over in the right corner on five minutes.
It was razor sharp from the Sharks, who were clearly keen to cut their teeth against last season’s English and European top-dogs.
Exeter’s response, however, was not only immediate, but emphatic. Having positioned themselves on the edge of the Sale 22 with a penalty, they used the resultant line-out to disect the Sharks back division, ripping them open like a Great White would devour a solitary seal.
Ollie Devoto was first receiver off the set-piece, before feeding Joe Simmonds who slipped the ball to Facundo Cordero. Running behind on the loop, the Argentinian simply turned on the after burners, scorching and side-stepping his way past five defenders to score under the sticks.
The BT Sport commentators waxed lyrical of the winger’s solo effort, describing it as ‘truly magical’. In truth, that superlative didn’t even do it justice - it was indescribable, such was the quality of it. Joe Simmonds converted to ensure it was maximum reward for the Chiefs.
That lead, however, would prove short-lived as within minutes the Sharks were edging themselves back in front. AJ MacGinty slotting his side back in front after England prop Harry Williams was adjudged to have dropped a scrum.
It was end-to-end stuff from both sides, but the ding-dong battle continued aplenty with the Chiefs next to deliver a smart upper cut into the jaws of the Sharks.
Joe Simmonds positioned them to within five metres of the home line with another penalty, the fruits of which saw his elder brother Sam collect the set-piece, before his fellow forwards gathered in to propel Sean Lonsdale - on his fist start of the season - over for Exeter’s second try of the night.
It had been an action-packed first quarter, but this was only the start of the overall fight. Sale saw skipper Jono Ross sent to the cooler for a ten-minute stint right from the restart as he took out Sam Skinner in the air.
However, Exeter’s numerical advantage didn’t last more than a minute as Yeandle was also dispatched to the sidelines, his night ended by referee Karl Dickson who dismissed him for a shoulder charge to the head of opposite number Curtis Langdon.
A week on from the five red cards shown in the Premiership in Round 10, Yeandle became the latest player to be put on ‘Red Alert’.
Undeterred, the Chiefs extended their lead with a Joe Simmonds penalty ten minutes before the break, only for MacGinty to be denied a try of his own following a knock-on by a team-mate in the build-up to the score.
It was a let-off for the visitors, but when the Sharks threatened with the last play of the half, this time there was to be no intervention from the officials, prop Bevan Rodd rumbling over from close range to claim the score, converted by MacGinty.
HALF TIME: SALE SHARKS 15 EXETER CHIEFS 15
After such a pulsating first 40 minutes, it was little surprise that the second half started in much the same fashion.
Although down a man, the Chiefs pulled together early doors to get themselves back in Shark-infested waters. Another penalty was drilled into the home 22, creating the foundation for Baxter’s team to strike once more.
Replacement hooker Jack Innard found Lonsdale in the line - and although the lock was taken out as he looked to drop down, Sam Simmonds wrestled the ball from his grasp, before sneaking around not only the blindside of the ruck, but also De Klerk to claim his 12th Premiership try of the season.
Not content with overtaking Thomas Waldrom’s club record in the top-flight the previous week, the free-scoring No.8 now has even more landmarks in his sights between now and the end of the season.
Up by five heading towards the hour mark, the Sharks started to pool together in numbers, producing a sustained spell of pressure they thought had created another try for MacGinty. But, just as the first half, the officials were on hand to deny the American international once more, this time picking up a crossing offence in midfield.
Baxter threw on fresh muscle to help maintain the fight and some serious sets of defence were greeted by roars of approval from the Exeter contingent camped out on the sidelines. The home pressure, though, was mounting and when youngster Josh Hodge conceded a penalty with just ten minutes remaining, it offered the Sharks the opening they had craved.
Just as the Chiefs had done earlier, they kicked into the corner, crafting the opportunity for the home pack to combine as one into a virtually impenetrable force. As they shunted towards the Exeter try-line, it was Langdon who peeled off the back of the maul, stretching his arm out just enough to score.
MacGinty slotted the extras to that try, as well as adding a late penalty, to put the Chiefs five behind with less than two minutes remaining.
The drama, though, was far from finished and having repelled a late onslaught from the Sharks in the shadows of their own posts. The Chiefs won a series of penalties to thrust themselves down field and in sight of the line.
They huffed and puffed, winning at least two more penalties, before trying one final time. Six minutes into added on time, this was the moment for Baxter’s side. As they converged into their huddle, the plan was laid out in detail for all and sundry.
Sadly, the execution failed to reap its rewards. Some crafty shenanigans at the front of the line-out from the Sharks were missed by the officials, but the subsequent spillage of possession by the Chiefs was not. Daniel Du Preez collected the loose ball, before feeding it to MacGinty who punted it into touch.
Sam Simmonds led the protests from the visiting camp, but referee Dickson was unmoved and had already blasted the final whistle. Crest-fallen, especially given their heroic efforts, the Chiefs were once again left to swallow a bitter pill.
Sharks: L James; B McGuigan, S James, S Hill (R Du Preez 64), M Yarde; AJ MacGinty, F de Klerk (S Dugdale 64); B Rodd (R Harrison 60), C Langdon, W-G John (C Oosthuizen 60); J Beaumont (C Wiese 53), L de Jager; J Ross (capt), C Neild (R Quirke 64), D du Preez. Replacements (not used): E Ashman, S Hammersley
Tries - McGuigan, Rodd, Langdon; Conversions - MacGinty (2); Penalties - MacGinty (2)
Yellow Card: Ross
Chiefs: J Hodge; F Cordero (J Innard 28), I Whitten (T Hendrickson 70), O Devoto, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Townsend 52); A Hepburn (B Moon 58), J Yeandle (capt), H Williams (M Street 53); S Lonsdale (D Armand 73), S Skinner; D Ewers, J Vermeulen (R Capstick 57), S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): H Skinner.
Tries - Cordero, Lonsdale, S Simmonds; Conversion - J Simmonds; Penalty - J Simmonds
Red Card: Yeandle
Referee: K Dickson