Warriors 17 Chiefs 21
Worcester Warriors 17
Exeter Chiefs 21
Mark Stevens at Sixways
It came at the third attempt, but Exeter Chiefs are finally up and running in 2021, after they edged a hard-fought Gallagher Premiership tussle with Worcester Warriors at Sixways.
Rob Baxter’s side moved back into the top two, five points adrift of leaders Bristol Bears, with a display that showed the recent two-week break had clearly served its purpose.
True, it wasn’t always vintage fair from the defending champions, but it mattered not as the Devonians put to bed worries over their recent form following setbacks to Wasps and Bristol earlier this month.
Early tries from Jonny Gray and Ian Whitten, both of which were converted by Joe Simmonds, gave them the perfect start, only for the Midlanders to come storming back, cutting that deficit to just four by the turn thanks to an Oli Morris try and the boot of fly-half Duncan Weir.
Ollie Devoto bagged a third converted try for the visitors within minutes of the second half restarting - only for Scottish International Weir to capitalise on a mistake by Olly Woodburn to claim a second Warriors score, which he also converted.
Worcester did their best during a frenetic final quarter to haul in their rivals, but it was not to be as the Chiefs held firm under some intense pressure.
Back in action for the first time in almost three weeks, the Chiefs - buoyed by the inclusion of international stars Gray, Stuart Hogg and Tomas Francis - started brightly.
A handful of penalties - not something you should cough up against Baxter’s side - gifted early possession and territory to the visitors, who took just a minute to make their numerical advantage pay after home hooker Niall Annett was sin-binned for a no-arms tackle in front of his own posts.
Having initially raided through the middle with Alec Hepburn, the Chiefs recycled possession before using a second tap penalty to create the platform to work Scottish hulk Gray over for his third try of the season.
One try in the bag, the tally soon read two as the visitors used the speed and guile of Sam Simmonds and Hogg to work an opening for Whitten down the right. Put into space, but still with plenty to do, the Irish International made no mistake, fending off the attentions of Justin Clegg to score in the right-hand corner.
It was the dream start for the Chiefs, who it appeared were benefitting from their recent enforced break which, Baxter himself, had said the team had used to reset themselves after a sticky period.
The Warriors, on the other hand, were already feeling somewhat cut adrift and in need of a rapid response. The sight of playmaker Billy Searle being helped off the field did little to aid their cause, although it did signal a much-earlier involvement in the contest for Weir.
And it didn’t take long for the diminutive No.10 to help get his side on the straight and narrow. Alongside fellow half-back, Francois Hougaard, they were able to get the Warriors on the move at last.
One man to benefit from their endeavours was centre Morris, who was able to latch onto a sumptuous offload from winger Perry Humphreys, before shrugging off the attentions of a tackle from Joe Simmonds to score Worcester’s first try of the day.
Weir - who will be returning to Glasgow Warriors next season - banged over the extras to that score, before sending over a penalty to cut Exeter’s lead to just four points at the interval.
HALF TIME WORCESTER WARRIORS 10 EXETER CHIEFS 14
Worcester’s end of half antics had sounded a warning to the champions, but they resumed on a cold, wet - and at times - snowy afternoon, determined to put their stamp back on proceedings.
Indeed, it took just four minutes for the ‘Men in White’ to snap back into the groove. The impressive Gray took charge at a ruck in centre field, before finding Whitten on his shoulder. The centre preceded to draw in the cover before passing to his left to the onrushing Devoto, who darted for the line.
The England international appeared to get there, albeit under pressure at the death, but referee Tom Foley just wanted a quick conflab with TV match official Rowan Kitt before confirming what pretty much everyone else in the ground had already decided.
Joe Simmonds, still nursing his way back from an ankle injury sustained in the loss to Bristol, obliged with the extras to make it a third maximum haul for the day.
Now with the all-important bonus point in their sights, you expected the Chiefs to go for the slightly exposed Worcester jugular. Sure, they huffed and puffed in attack, but their efforts were falling short, either through some stubborn resistance from the Warriors - or the collective need of the visitors to almost play perfect rugby.
The loss of Devoto to a yellow card for a high tackle further hampered their cause - and it was whilst he was off the field that the hosts claimed their second try.
Pressing hard deep in the Exeter 22, it looked as though Woodburn had cleaned up a kick in behind with some crafty defensive work on his own line. Sadly, he was hauled down in his exit route by former Chief, Matt Kvesic, whose hard work on the floor not only turned over possession, but gifted Weir the easiest of scores, which he duly converted from the left touchline.
Weir could - and probably should - have further reduced the deficit later in the half when he opted for a shot at goal from 35 metres. On this occasion, though, his lengthy effort drifted wide of the mark, much to the relief of the Chiefs and their animated coaching staff on the sidelines.
Late on, strong carries from the ever-willing Dave Ewers, Richard Capstick and Sam Simmonds helped to give the Chiefs front foot ball, but unfortunately they were unable to make their chances pay.
In the end, it mattered not. For Baxter and his troops, the battle was won. Another equally testing trip awaits this Sunday up in the North East against the high-flying Newcastle Falcons. However, based on this latest showing, the Chiefs will once again be prepared for an almighty scrap.
Warriors: C Pennell; P Humphreys, O Morris (F Venter 67), A Beck, N David (B Cutting 17-18); B Searle (D Weir 21), F Hougaard (G Simpson 73); E Waller (M Thomas 58), N Annett (B Cutting 58), N Schonert (R Palframan 58); J Clegg (A Bresler 67), G Kitchener; T Hill (capt), M Kvesic, M Mama (S Lewis 45).
Tries - Morris, Weir; Conversions - Weir (2); Penalty - Weir
Yellow Card: Annett
Chiefs: S Hogg; O Woodburn, I Whitten, O Devoto (T Hendrickson 63), T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds, J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 67); A Hepburn, J Yeandle (capt), T Francis (M Street 54); J Gray (D Armand 63), S Skinner, D Ewers, R Capstick (S Lonsdale 74), S Simmonds. Replacements (not used): J Innard, J Kenny, H Skinner.
Tries - Gray, Whitten, Devoto; Conversions - J Simmonds (3)
Yellow Card: Devoto
Referee: T Foley