Tigers 22 Chiefs 31
Leicester Tigers 22
Exeter Chiefs 31
Mark Stevens at Welford Road
Father Christmas isn’t due for a couple of days yet, but the Exeter Chiefs are already celebrating after they moved to the top of the Gallagher Premiership with this hard-fought win over Leicester Tigers.
Rob Baxter’s side moved into pole position for the first time this season, overcoming a resilient Tigers side - who had led 22-14 at the break - to bag a sixth successive victory.
Not only did the Chiefs overhaul that scoreline with a ruthless second half showing, but their miserly attitude - one Ebenezer Scrooge would certainly have been proud of - helped to heap further misery on their struggling hosts, who only remain off the foot of the table due to the points deduction enforced on defending champions Saracens.
This loss, coupled with Saracens defeating Bristol Bears at Allianz Park, means the 35-point deduction inflicted on the Londoners is now down to just 17 points.
These are indeed worrying times for the Tigers. Once the undisputed Kings of English Rugby, these days it is the Chiefs, who are the rising stars of the club game - and so it proved when push came to shove during this latest tussle.
Jannes Kirsten gave the Chiefs a dream start, scoring the first of their four tries inside the opening five minutes, but back roared the Tigers, who hit their rivals with a brace of tries from Jonny May (2) and Jordan Taufua.
Don Armand scored either side of the break for the visitors, before Jonny Hill helped put the icing on the cake, powering his way over in the final quarter to seal all five points.
Buoyed by a five-game winning streak, it was a buoyant Chiefs outfit that arrived in the East Midlands for their return to top-flight action. Ahead of kick-off, Baxter had made nine changes in personnel to his starting line-up from that which defeated Sale Sharks in the Heineken Champions Cup six days earlier.
Into the pack came Ben Moon, Elvis Taione, Kirsten, Armand and Matt Kvesic, whilst behind the scrum Gareth Steenson formed a new half-back pairing alongside Jack Maunder, while Ollie Devoto and Olly Woodburn were also given the nod from the outset.
The Tigers, unusually languishing in 11th spot in the table ahead of kick-off, were at full-strength for the contest. However, they found themselves behind after just five minutes when the Chiefs struck with their first visit to the home 22.
Having put in a big defensive set to thwart Leicester’s early advances, Henry Slade - skippering the Chiefs for the first time in the Premiership - fired the turnover penalty from halfway deep behind enemy lines. Offered the perfect platform, the visitors do what they do best, forming together up front from the resultant line-out to work South African lock Kirsten over for his maiden Exeter try, converted by Steenson.
It was the dream start for the Chiefs, but the Tigers roared back straight from the restart restoring parity within a minute when the fleet-footed Telusa Veainu caused mayhem in the Exeter defensive line, before shipping a simple pass off for May to race over.
Ford land the conversion to that score and Leicester’s second, which arrived five minutes later. The England playmaker was the architect for the score, crafting a perfectly weighted cross-field kick into the path of Taufua, who mopped up the ball, drove forward and barged past Stuart Hogg to score.
Welford Road duly erupted into a wall of noise, but the home faithful had further reason to cheer midway through the half when May grabbed his second. The England flyer finishing off superbly after international colleagues Ford and Manu Tuilagi had worked in tandem to release him.
Initially, referee Luke Pearce was unsure of the grounding, but a quick conflab with TV match official, Rowan Kitt, confirmed the inevitable for the Chiefs.
Baxter’s side needed a rapid response, not only to haul them back into the match, but to quell a vociferous home crowd, many of whom were willing to give their own take on proceedings to referee Pearce.
To their credit, the Chiefs did find the foothold they needed. Hogg’s break propelled them into the Tigers 22, after which the forwards took charge. The renowned pick-and-go game kicked into overdrive, forcefully inching its way to within strike range, where upon Armand was able to drive over for the converted score.
It was pulsating stuff from both sides, who were willing to throw everything at one another. Ford nudged his side back in front with a routine penalty, whilst at the other end a surging burst from the lively Devoto had the Chiefs back within sniffing distance of the home line.
Unfortunately, the Chiefs could not make this latest venture pay dividends, Taufua producing a superb turnover on the home try-line to stave off the danger at the break.
HALF TIME LEICESTER TIGERS 22 EXETER CHIEFS 14
Welford Road rose to applaud both sides - particularly the Tigers - who had displayed their best half of the campaign, but crucially the Chiefs were still in touch and re-emerged hell-bent on hauling themselves back into contention.
An early Steenson penalty, given after Tuafua had failed to roll away after a hefty hit on Exeter replacement Billy Keast, gave the Chiefs the perfect fillip from which to launch their second half assault.
With confidence rising by the minute, so the expected Exeter fightback began to intensify. Forward momentum was all with Baxter’s side, but the Tigers were hardly helping themselves, falling foul of the officials.
A penalty to the corner allowed the Chiefs to once more set-up camp deep in the Leicester half, but as Kvesic attempted to take the line-out ball, his arm was taken out by Tomas Lavanini. It gifted the visitors a second bite at the apple and this time they didn’t make a mistake.
Working the ball across field from right to left through the back division, it set the platform from which the Exeter eight could do their best work. Ruthless and relentless, the simple pick-and-go game drew in Leicester’s rearguard, before Armand drove for the line to dot down.
Back on level terms, Steenson banged over the conversion to put his side back in front for the first time since the opening minutes.
It was a position the Chiefs would not relinquish during a brutal final quarter in which they literally squeezed the last breath out of the Tigers threat.
Lock Hill rounded off a slick attack to bag the bonus point score, which was superbly converted by Steenson to ensure the Irish marksman finished his afternoon shooting session with an unblemished record.
Although the Tigers did their best to salvage something in the dying embers, the Chiefs were merely growing in stature. Exeter’s line-speed was spot on, whilst their collisions were leaving Leicester bodies splintered across the turf.
Debutants Kyle Cooper and Enrique Pieretto both got stuck into the cause as the light drizzle turned to heavy rain. However, the only dampener come the final whistle for the visitors was the sight of Slade hobbling away on crutches. Baxter is hopeful the England ace’s injury is nothing too serious, especially with old adversaries Saracens next up in the final game of 2019 at a sold-out Sandy Park.
Tigers: T Veainu; A Thompstone, M Tuilagi, N Reid (G Worth 73), J May; G Ford, B Youngs (B White 73); E Genge (F Gigena 73), T Youngs (capt, T Polota-Nau 62)), D Cole (N Leatigaga 73); T Lavanini, W Spencer (H Wells 40); C Green, J Taufua (T Reffell 67), S Kalamafoni. Replacement (not used): T Hardwick
Tries - May (2), Taufua; Conversions - Ford (2); Penalty - Ford
Chiefs: S Hogg; O Woodburn, H Slade (capt, S Hill 33), O Devoto, I Whitten; G Steenson, J Maunder (S Townsend 62); B Moon (B Keast 42-50, 79), E Taione (K Cooper 62), H Williams (E Pieretto 79); J Kirsten (D Dennis 55), J Hill (S Lonsdale 68); D Armand, J Vermeulen, M Kvesic. Replacement (not used): T Hendrickson
Tries - Kirsten, Armand (2), J Hill; Conversions - Steenson (4); Penalty - Steenson
Referee: L Pearce