Sharks 20 Chiefs 22
Sale Sharks 20
Exeter Chiefs 22
Mark Stevens at the AJ Bell Stadium
At the halfway stage of qualifying, Exeter Chiefs continue to set the pace in Pool Two of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Rob Baxter’s side made it three wins from as many starts to not only maintain pole position in Europe, but at the same time see off a determined effort from Gallagher Premiership rivals Sale Sharks.
In a powerful first half display, the well-drilled Devonians led 22-13 thanks in the main to a penalty try and further touchdowns from Stuart Hogg and Luke Cowan-Dickie.
The second half, however, the finely-tuned Exeter engine started to splutter somewhat as the Sharks - who had stayed in touch during the opening 40 minutes thanks to a brace from hooker Akker van der Merwe - bit back.
Not only did they have the Chiefs on the ropes at times, but when skipper Jono Ross rumbled over with five minutes remaining, it was all hands to the pump for the visitors, who thankfully had enough in the tank to record a priceless victory
Having notched up three successive bonus point wins in as many weeks, it was a confident Chiefs outfit that landed in the North West for this latest European encounter.
Ahead of kick-0ff, Baxter made seven changes to his starting line-up from that which had swept aside Wasps 38-3 in the Gallagher Premiership the previous week. Into the pack came Alec Hepburn, Jonny Hill, Jacques Vermeulen and Sam Simmonds, while behind Henry Slade and Hogg were also added to the mix having been given a well-deserved week off.
The Sharks, meanwhile, were pretty much at full-strength and had South African playmakers Faf de Klerk and Robert du Preez pulling the strings for them at half-backs.
On a dry, but cold afternoon in Salford, it was the home side - with a stiff breeze at their backs - who started the contest brightly. Steve Diamond’s side dominated the opening exchanges, pinning their rivals back with an early onslaught that yielded the first points on nine minutes when du Preez slotted them in front with a routine penalty.
Exeter’s response to falling behind, however, was to hit back with two tries in as many minutes. Hogg was the instigator of the first score, the Scottish international slicing through the home defence like a knife through butter. As he tore towards the post, he was halted by a last-gasp tackle from Chris Ashton. However, any hopes of hot ball for White were cynically thwarted by Tom Curry.
Referee Mathieu Raynal knew exactly what the England international had done and duly dispatched the flanker to the sidelines for a ten-minute stint, as well as awarding the obligatory penalty try.
Moments later and the Travelling Tribe were celebrating once again as Hogg bagged his maiden score for the club, finishing off sublime build-up play from Slade and Jack Nowell. Sadly, it would be Hogg’s last involvement as he was forced from the field with a head injury, collected as a result of hitting his head when Ross attempted to stop him from scoring.
Joe Simmonds narrowly failed with the conversion attempt - his first miss in 37 kicks - but he was quickly back on song, landing a penalty to stretch Exeter’s lead at the end of the first quarter.
It was a deadly double from the Devonians, but the Sharks - spurred on by their biggest crowd of the season - were far from done. Indeed, they reduced the deficit themselves within three minutes through van der Merwe.
The hooker was able to lap up the loose ball and score unopposed after Nic White’s attempted box kick was charged down as he looked to clear the danger from deep inside his own 22.
Undeterred, the Chiefs brushed themselves down and with their next attack, they netted their third score. Sam Simmonds did the initial damage with a surging burst through the middle, after which it was worked back inside through the forwards, who created the platform for Cowan-Dickie to drive over from close range for the converted score.
It was gripping stuff from both sides, who were literally throwing everything at one another. Next, it was the turn of the Sharks to target rewards deep behind enemy lines. A series of penalties allowed them the opportunity to set-up a five-metre line-out. The first was repelled by the Chiefs, but when they tried again, it was van der Merwe who was driven over for the home side’s second of the day.
As half time approached, Sale could - and probably should - have added another score, but a superb try-saving tackle from Sam Simmonds saw Marland Yarde knock on just inches from the Exeter try-line.
It was a big let-off for the Chiefs who, thankfully, were able to close out the remainder of the half with little worry.
HALF TIME SALE SHARKS 13 EXETER CHIEFS 22
After an absorbing first half, there was a lot for both teams to live up to on the resumption. Sale were forced into a change with the injured Yarde replaced by Denny Solomona, whilst the Chiefs remain unchanged - other than the enforced withdrawal of Hogg, who up until his withdrawal had produced his best performance in an Exeter jersey yet.
The early exchanges saw Baxter’s looked to make the most of the elements, pinning their rivals back with a flurry of probing kicks, before then trying to suffocate them with an all-out blitz in terms of defence.
The Chiefs had plenty of possession, as well as territory, but they were failing to make either pay, either coughing up the ball or letting the Sharks clear their danger with some untimely errors.
Up front, the Exeter eight were certainly making their presence felt and when they won a penalty just inside the Sharks half, it offered the visitors the perfect opportunity to suffocate Sale just metres from their own line. Sadly, Slade’s intended touch-finder went dead and the chance was lost as quickly as it came.
Slade had a chance to redeem himself shortly after with a similar kick, which this time he was able to drive deep into enemy territory. This time round, the line-out malfunctioned and again the Sharks were spared.
Making the most of the let-offs, the hosts threatened at the other end with Rohan Janse van Rensburg bursting through the middle of the park, making 40 metres before he was bundled into touch by some excellent scramble defence from the Chiefs.
The South African’s charge, however, had lifted the home crowd and when Exeter captain Dave Dennis was adjudged to have made a high tackle on halfway, a superb kick to the right corner from James put the Chiefs back on the defensive.
Under the cosh, the Chiefs were living dangerously, conceding a flurry of penalties, which the Sharks were happy to turn into scrums. The introduction of fresh muscle had the desired effect and when Raynal lost patience for another set-piece dropping to the deck, it was England international Ben Moon who was sent to the cooler for a 10-minute stretch.
Sensing their moment may be coming, the Sharks threw everything at the Chiefs with a series of attacking waves. They were adjudged to have been held up over the line, before Ross thundered onto a pass to claim the home side’s third try, converted by du Preez, late on.
Try as they may, the Sharks did their best to counter out of their own 22 late on, but the Chiefs - no doubt recalling the memories of their last-gasp defeat to Bristol Bears earlier in the season - dug deep, starving them of possession with a crafty, yet effective, side-to-side drill.
It wasn’t exactly pretty, but by then who really cared!
Job done, it’s now onto next week and another Sunday showdown with the visiting Sharks, where a similar outcome will all but guarantee the Chiefs of their place in the latter stages for only the second time ever.
Sale Sharks: S Hammersley; C Ashton, S James, R van Rensburg (L James 4-17, 63), M Yarde (D Solomona h/t); R du Preez, F de Klerk; C Oosthuizen (R Harrison 55), A van der Merwe (C Langdon 75), W John (J Cooper-Woolley 55); B Evans, J Phillips (M Postlewhaite 75); T Curry, B Curry, J Ross (capt). Replacements (not used): C Neild, W Cliff.
Tries - van der Merwe (2), Ross; Conversion - du Preez; Penalty - du Preez
Yellow Card: T Curry
Chiefs: S Hogg (O Woodburn 17, A Hepburn 69); J Nowell, H Slade, S Hill, I Whitten; J Simmonds, N White; A Hepburn (B Moon 63), L Cowan-Dickie (E Taione 72), H Williams (M Street 72); D Dennis (capt, J Kirsten 67), J Hill; D Ewers, J Vermeulen, S Simmonds (D Armand 66). Replacements (not used): J Maunder, G Steenson.
Tries - Penalty Try, Hogg, Cowan-Dickie; Conversions - Penalty Try, J Simmonds; Penalty - J Simmonds
Yellow Card: Moon
Referee: M Raynal