Sharks 15 Chiefs 25
Sale Sharks 15
Exeter Chiefs 25
Mark Stevens at the AJ Bell Stadium
At the third time of asking, Exeter Chiefs finally got their Gallagher Premiership campaign up and running with a statement win against rivals Sale Sharks.
Having come unstuck against Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints in the opening two rounds, Rob Baxter’s side rediscovered their winning formula at just the right time.
The victory was not only the perfect antidote to recent troubles, but it should again the spark to ignite the new season for the Devonians.
Not that they had it all their own way in the North West. Hosts Sale flew out of the traps and they were ten points up in as many minutes as the Sharks looked to inflict another sizeable bite on their rivals.
Ross Harrison’s early score, converted by Rob Du Preez, gave them the dream start, before the South African playmaker added a penalty just moments later.
The Chiefs were somewhat shell-shocked by the vicious opening attack, but as they soon settled into their stride, so they began to show their own glimpses of quality.
Henry Slade reduced the arrears with an initial penalty, before the England man glided over just before the break to add a try – which he also converted – to restore parity at the break.
On the resumption, Exeter’s star centre was at it again, stroking over another penalty, before more fancy footwork saw him claim his second try of the afternoon.
Two minutes later and the visitors were extending their advantage, this time from a more unlikely source, lock Will Witty, who showed some unbelievable footballing skills before dotting down by the posts.
It was rich rewards for a dogged display from the Chiefs, but they were given a nervy final ten minutes when Sale replacement Ewan Ashman snuck over for a late consolation.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter made a string of changes to his starting line-up from the previous week. Into the pack came props Ben Moon and Josh Iosefa-Scott, while Dave Ewers and Richard Capstick were added to the back-row.
Behind the scrum, Harvey Skinner was given the role of Chief playmaker in the No.10 jersey, while at full-back Stuart Hogg came in for his first start of the season.
The Sharks, meanwhile, made eight changes to their line-up from that which drew at London Irish. Included in their mix was Sam Hill, formerly of the Exeter parish, as well as skipper Jono Ross on his 100th top-flight appearance.
And it was the Sharks duo who were celebrating first as Harrison snuck over for the game’s opening score on three minutes. The long-serving forward was able to burrow over from close range after Sale had slammed an early penalty into the corner to set-up a five-metre line-out.
Du Preez obliged with the extras to that score, before adding a penalty as the Chiefs struggled to handle Sale’s opening blast.
To their credit, the visitors did respond – albeit after a hefty spell of pressure – where it seemed nigh on impossible for them to find a way through what was proving a stubborn Sale rearguard action.
Having won themselves a flurry of penalties, Slade eventually took charge of proceedings, firing over a penalty for his first points of the season.
An injury to centre partner Ollie Devoto hardly helped Exeter’s cause, but as half time drew ever closer, so the Chiefs fashioned the opening for Slade to cross.
Winger Tom O’Flaherty caused the initial havoc with one of his trademark bursts, after which the ball was worked back across the field into the hands of Hogg, who was able to time a simple pop pass into the grasp of the onrushing Slade.
HALF TIME SALE SHARKS 10 EXETER CHIEFS 10
With little to choose between the two sides following a ferocious first half in which defences often ruled the roost, it was the Chiefs who were first to show just two minutes after the restart.
A clever tackle by Jack Yeandle on Harrison felled the home forward, allowing Capstick to steal in over the ball and win the penalty, which Slade was able to dispatch with aplomb from 45 metres out.
It was the first time in the contest that the Chiefs led, but it was a position they would not surrender despite the best efforts of Alex Sanderson’s men.
Home flanker Cameron Nield thought he had restored Sale’s lead when he seemed to snipe clear from a ruck on the edge of the Exeter 22, but numerous TV replays adjudged the home side had illegally played the ball on the floor and the score was soon chalked off.
If that was disappointing for the home faithful, worse news would follow shortly after when centre Rohan Janse Van Rensburg was dismissed for a late and high hit on Skinner.
Again, the officials viewed numerous showings of the incident. Again, the ruling went in favour of the Chiefs, who took just three minutes to make their numerical advantage pay dividends.
This time it was another well-crafted attack, starting initially wide on the left, before it was shipped back across the Exeter back division to Slade, who purred his way over the whitewash like a pristine Rolls Royce.
The small contingent of the Travelling Tribe had not even finished celebrating that effort, before they were on their feet once more.
As Du Preez looked to chip over the top, Witty read the South African’s actions, thrusting his arms aloft and charging down his kick. As the ball span loose, the lumbering lock fly-hacked the ball forward, before racing after it in a hot pursuit to the line. As the cover closed in, Witty’s footballing skills, more akin to that of Cristiano Ronaldo, propelled the ball forward again , before he picked up and crashed over for the score.
Witty – who was later named the BT Sport Man of the Match – was duly mobbed by his delirious team-mates, who instinctively knew they had struck a hammer blow.
Sale, however, were far from finished – a point underlined when the giant frame of JP Du Preez strode clear through the middle – before steamrollering over the top of Hogg as he looked to halt his stride.
Although the Chiefs held at bay that specific threat, they could not deny Ashman, who was able to squeeze over in the left-hand corner from another close-range line-out.
His late score set up a nervy final ten minutes for the Chiefs, but the damage had already been done earlier in the half and it was Baxter and his players who were able to stand firm in the dying embers, closing out the contest in a manner befitting that of former champions.
It was a timely victory in the heat of battle, but the overall seasonal war continues in the coming months. Strap yourself in for another epic ride!
Sharks: D Solomona (K Wilkinson 71), T Roebuck, R Janse van Rensburg, S Hill (L James 36), M Yarde; R du Preez (D Solomona 77), W Cliff (G Warr 59); R Harrison (B Rodd 51), C Langdon (E Ashman 62), N Schonert (C Oosthuizen 51); C Wiese, JP du Preez (R Birch 71); C Neild (T Taylor 57), S Dugdale, J Ross (capt).
Tries – Harrison, Ashman; Conversion – Du Preez; Penalty – Du Preez
Red Card: Van Rensburg
Chiefs: S Hogg; F Cordero, H Slade, O Devoto (T Hendrickson 29), T O’Flaherty; H Skinner (J Simmonds 56), J Maunder (S Townsend 67); B Moon (A Hepburn h/t), J Yeandle (capt, J Innard 67), J Iosefa-Scott (H Williams h/t); W Witty (R McCauley 71), S Lonsdale; D Ewers (C Tshiunza 74), D Armand, R Capstick.
Tries – Slade (2), Witty; Conversion – Slade (2); Penalties – Slade (2)
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys