Tigers 34 Chiefs 19
Leicester Tigers 34
Exeter Chiefs 19
Mark Stevens at Mattioli Woods Welford Road
For years Leicester Tigers were the team every Premiership side would go hunting for – such was their dominance on the domestic stage.
In recent times, Exeter Chiefs have taken on that mantle, such has been their own meteoric rise from the Championship to that of Kings of England.
In their seasonal opener, though, it was the Tigers who showed their stripes, producing a five-try display that underlined they will be a force to be reckoned with this season after a number of years in hibernation.
Nic Dolly scored two tries, whilst there were further touchdowns for Freddie Steward, Harry Potter and Matt Scott. George Ford kicked the remainder of the home side’s points to give them a dream start.
For the Chiefs – minus a number of frontline stars due to injury and summer tour unavailability – there were crumbs of positivity to take with Don Armand and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne both crossing, alongside a second half penalty try.
However, that ruthless edge that got them to last season’s showpiece final was a little off key against the East Midlanders.
Welcomed onto the pitch to the now famous strands of Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’ – it didn’t take the Tigers long to get into their stride. Indeed, just three minutes had elapsed when England international Ford punished an indiscretion by Will Witty to put the hosts in front.
Hardly the start they would have craved, the Chiefs looked to respond almost immediately with Rus Tuima, Jack Nowell and Witty all producing some heavyweight carries, before the ball was spilled in the tackle, allowing the Tigers to clear the danger.
The tone was set, however, as both sides looked to tear into each other. It was Leicester, though, who struck again on 12 minutes, strong carries through the heart of the Exeter defensive line saw them punch themselves to within sight of the line, before Ford went wide to allow Steward to cross.
The score ignited the Welford Road faithful, many of whom have not been in attendance since the Covid pandemic hit way back in March 2019.
Those home cheers, however, proved short-lived as straight from the restart it was the Chiefs who showed their fighting spirit. Having won a penalty on halfway, skipper Simmonds drilled it into the left corner, teeing up the opportunity for the visitors to strike from five metres out.
Jack Innard’s line-out was taken at the front of the line-out and with the home side short in numbers, it was Armand who was adjudged to have done enough to burrows his way over from close range.
Up and running, it was just the lift the Chiefs needed, but as they tried to build on their score, they were picked off just minutes later when Nadolo – formerly of the Exeter parish – latched onto a pass in midfield, before thundering his way through the middle of the Exeter line.
Simmonds, O’Flaherty and Josh Hodge all felt the full force of the imposing Fijian, eventually hauling him just shy of the whitewash, but the cavalry was close at hand and Youngs was able to collect possession quickly, offloading to Potter who was able to weave his magic over in the corner.
Just as they had done previously, Baxter’s side again looked for a swift riposte. Ollie Devoto and Nowell combined well off a line-out move, before Witty and Tuima took up the charge once more. Within strike range, Jack Maunder looked to snipe over, playing off the advantage, but his chance was chalked off for being just short.
Undeterred, the visitors continued to press forward in numbers – and they thought they had reduced the arrears again when Innard appeared to cross from a five-metre penalty. Initially, referee Ian Tempest awarded the score, only for him to review which, after numerous replays, he deemed the Cornish hooker to have produced a double movement in the process of scoring.
In the grand scheme of things, it was a pivotal moment in the contest. Having survived the threat, the Tigers used the penalty to clear the danger and from the territory gained, they added a third try on the stroke of half time.
Freddie Steward’s chip over the top didn’t look to be causing too much of an issue for the Chiefs, but when it flipped awkwardly on its side, wrong-footing two Exeter defenders, it was the Tigers who reacted quickest, working the opening for Scott to steal over from a couple of yards out.
HALF TIME LEICESTER TIGERS 20 EXETER CHIEFS 5
On the resumption, the Chiefs knew they had to come out all guns blazing. And this they did, starting the second period with a real gusto that quickly put the Tigers on the backfoot.
Early pressure had they camped deep behind enemy lines, before they looked to crash over from another short-range penalty. Leicester, though, were standing firm, forcing their rivals to eventually go wide to where Nowell was able to set-up Slade just metres from the line.
The England centre looked set to crash his way over in the right-hand corner, but a saving tackle from Nadolo saw him bundled into touch with the line in sniffing distance.
With their scrum starting to gain some dominance, so the Chiefs continued to push on the attacking accelerator. More penalties flowed – and following a final warning from Tempest – they were eventually rewarded with a penalty try, which also saw home lock Harry Wells banished to the naughty step for a ten-minute stint.
It was just what the doctor had ordered for the visitors, but no sooner had they hauled themselves back into contention, the Tigers hit them with a crucial sucker punch that also brought about the all-important bonus point.
Despite their numerical advantage, they showed they were no mugs themselves, using a driving line-out to send hooker Dolly over for a try on his league debut. Ford slotted the extras and the Tigers were back in command.
Although the Chiefs continued to boss territory and possession for large parts, they were struggling to find a way through the Tigers defence which, on this evidence, has had some real input added over the close season from new defence coach, Kevin Sinfield.
The former Leeds Rugby League star’s imprint was all over their hard-hitting press they adopted – and the Chiefs struggled to find a way round it as the minutes continued to tick by.
A second converted Dolly try not only extended the home’s side lead, but put the already sizeable mountain the Chiefs had to climb to a now insurmountable height.
Freddie Burns – on his second coming with the Tigers – could have marked his return with a lengthy penalty, but they fell wide of the mark, whilst Nadolo was denied a certain try by a brilliant cover tackle from former club-mate Nowell.
To their credit, the Chiefs refused to lie over and die and with a spirited last hurrah, they were rewarded when Scottish international Hidalg0-Clyne sniped off the back of a ruck to race clear of the cover and under the sticks for the try converted by Harvey Skinner.
It was certainly a positive note to end for the Chiefs, but they know they will need to sharpen up on a number of areas of their game ahead of the impending visit of Northampton Saints to Sandy Park.
Tigers: F Steward; H Potter, M Scott, D Kelly, N Nadolo; G Ford (F Burns 69), B Youngs (J van Poorvilet 49); E Genge (capt, F van Wyk 65), N Dolly (T Cowan-Dickie 74), D Cole (N Leatigaga 54); H Wells, C Green (E Snyman 63); G Martin (O Chessum 63), T Reffell, H Liebenberg. Replacement (not used): G Porter
Tries – Steward, Potter, Scott, Dolly (2); Conversions – Ford (3); Penalty – Ford
Yellow Card: Wells
Chiefs: J Hodge; J Nowell, H Slade, O Devoto (T Hendrickson 69), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (capt, H Skinner 51), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 51); A Hepburn (B Moon 56), J Innard (J Yeandle 56), H Williams (S Nixon 56); W Witty (R McCauley 57), S Lonsdale; J Kirsten, D Armand, R Tuima (C Tshiunza 62).
Tries – Armand; Penalty Try, Hidalgo-Clyne; Conversions – Penalty Try, H Skinner
Referee: I Tempest