Tigers 27 Chiefs 7
Leicester Tigers 27
Exeter Chiefs 7
Mark Stevens at Welford Road
Sometimes you learn more in defeat than you do in victory - and that’s certainly how Rob Baxter will view this performance from his youthful Exeter Chiefs side.
Exeter’s Commander-In-Chief will review this display with his players on Monday knowing that lessons will certainly be learnt moving on, but that when you come to English rugby’s most decorated club, you must take your chances.
The Devonians dominated territory and possession for long spells against rivals Leicester Tigers, but it was the home side who bagged all five points on the night, showing ruthless efficiency to bag tries through Guy Thompson, Jordan Olowofela, Jonah Holmes and Kyle Eastmond.
All the visitors could muster in terms of a response from was a converted first half score from summer signing Jacques Vermeulen, who impressed many on his first outing in a Chiefs jersey.
Having kicked off their season on a winning note with a 28-14 victory over local rivals Bath, Baxter stuck largely with the same personnel for this first away-day of the season. There were some changes, though, including first starts of the season for Aussie internationals Greg Holmes and Dave Dennis in the pack, as well as a Chiefs debut for Vermeulen.
Behind, Harvey Skinner was given his chance at fly-half in the place of the experienced Gareth Steenson, whilst there was also a first-ever start for Barrie Karea in the midfield.
The Tigers, mauled 57-23 at Worcester Warriors in their seasonal opener, made wholesale changes with just centre Andy Forsyth retained from the previous week. Instead, they drafted in a large nucleus of their frontline stars, including skipper Tom Youngs, Calum Green, Guy Thompson, Sam Harrison, Kyle Eastmond and Jonah Holmes.
And it was former Jersey and Wasps forward Thompson who gave the home side the dream start inside three minutes. He was on hand to slide over in the left corner following a slick attackinvolving Jordan Olowofela and George Worth.
Summer signing Reid saw his conversion from wide on the left drift wide, before he then departed stage right - for ten minutes - when he was yellow carded by referee Jack Makepeace for a high tackle on Chiefs winger Max Bodilly.
With the numerical advantage, the Chiefs quickly made their rivals pay, hammering in a try from the resultant penalty. Using their tried and tested driving maul, they worked their way deep into the Leicester red zone, before the ball was worked to South African No.8 Vermeulen to drive over from close range. Skinner slotted the conversion to make it a maximum haul.
The Chiefs looked lively during the opening quarter, but when a well-judged kick in behind Bodilly saw the winger have to touchdown in his own goal area, it gifted the Tigers the perfect platform from which to launch an attack.
Some heavyweight carries from the Leicester eight were bravely repelled by some stubborn Chiefs defence, but when the home side decided to go wide, they crafted the opening for Olowofela to slide over in the left corner for their second score of the night.
Again, the Chiefs did their best to summon a response with Vermeulen and Jannes Kirsten providing some brute force through the middle. However, the Tigers soaked up the threat comfortably, before hitting their rivals with a third try, this time exploiting the numbers game out wide to send Holmes over for the score, converted by Reid.
As half-time approached, Baxter’s side - who had controlled much of the possession and territory - had two decent opportunities to capitalise, but on both occasions they spurned the opening and it was the Tigers who held the ten-point buffer at the turn.
HALF TIME LEICESTER TIGERS 17 EXETER CHIEFS 7
Looking to haul themselves back into the contest, the Chiefs started the second period brightly with Vermeulen providing the first significant impact with a 20m carry from the base of a scrum. However, as the visitors looked to spark an opening, Tom Wyatt was penalised for holding on and the chance came and went in an instance.
Leicester made the most of the let-off and in their first foray into the Chiefs half, they were able to extend their lead further when Reid slotted a routine penalty after Makepeace had adjudged Exeter had failed to roll away from the tackle area.
Up against it, the Chiefs needed to find a rapid response. To their credit, they dug deep, enjoying their best period of the half to date. Bodilly led the charge with an initial charge, before colleagues aplenty joined in the rush. They were making decent inroads again into the Leicester 22, before Thompson produced a clever turnover to save the day for his side.
Both sides started to empty their benches as the game inched into the last quarter, but still the Chiefs continued to press hard in attack. The Tigers, though, were proving tough nuts to crack, underlining a display that was light years ahead of last season, where they milked 81 tries in the Gallagher Premiership.
Chances were certainly around for the Chiefs, but they were crucially not making them count. Skinner this time seeing a long-range penalty drift wide of the left post after home prop Gaston Cortes was penalised for dropping a scrum.
Having soaked up plenty of Chiefs territory and possession, the Tigers rallied late on and they were rewarded when they claimed the all-important bonus point score. A powerful line-out drive propelled them into the Exeter 22, the forwards took charge initially, before the ball was worked wide through Ben White to Hardwick, whose dubious offload found Eastmond to score in the corner.
Hardwick banged over a sublime touchline conversion to serve the last rites to the Chiefs. However, Baxter will not be overly concerned with the end outcome, his young troops performing valiantly on one of English rugby’s greatest battlefields.
Tigers: G Worth; J Holmes, A Forsyth, K Eastmond, J Olowofela (F Steward 57); N Reid (T Hardwick 69), S Harrison (B White 49); G Bateman, T Youngs (capt, T Polota-Nau 51), J Heyes (G Cortes 57); W Spencer (H Wells 26), C Green; H Liebenberg, G Thompson (T Reffell 65), J Coghlan. Replacements: F Gigena
Tries - Thompson, Olowofela, Holmes, Eastmond; Conversions - Reid, Hardwick; Penalty - Reid
Yellow Card: Reid
Chiefs: T Wyatt; M Bodilly (P Laverick 65), T Hendrickson, B Karea (S Morley 69), J Short; H Skinner, S Maunder (J Snow 63); B Keast (D Southworth 70), J Innard (J Poole 57), G Holmes (M Street 31); D Dennis (capt, L Pearson 48), S South; J Kirsten, J Caulfield (J McRae 65), J Vermeulen.
Try - Vermeulen; Conversion - H Skinner
Referee: J Makepeace