Wasps 23 Chiefs 27
Exeter Chiefs 27
Mark Stevens at the Coventry Building Society Arena
It wasn’t quite the celebrations of a year ago in Bristol, but nonetheless it was another happy trip back down the M5 for Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs side.
Exactly 12 months on from becoming Kings of Europe for the first time, the Chiefs were made to fight right to the death to preserve their current winning streak in the Gallagher Premiership.
Jonny Hill’s late touchdown proved decisive, the England and British Lions lock landing a knockout blow in the final few minutes to end a stubborn resistance from rivals Wasps.
Up until that point, the two old sparring partners had knocked seven bells out of one another. As first the Chiefs bagged scores through Henry Slade and Facundo Cordero, before Wasps hit back with efforts of their own through Dan Frost and Thomas Young, plus the boot of Jimmy Gopperth to lead at the turn.
Goppeth would further extend their lead during the second period, before Sam Simmonds and Hill came to Exeter’s rescue and secure all five points.
Fresh from back-to-back victories over Sale Sharks and Worcester Warriors, Baxter stuck with a largely unchanged starting line-up for this latest match-up. Up front, he handed a first-ever Premiership start to Aussie lock Ryan McCauley, while behind Jack Nowell returned for the first time in weeks to replace Tom O’Flaherty on the wing.
Wasps, meanwhile, made four changes in personnel from that which had lost to Northampton Saints last time out. Three of them came in the front-row where former Cornish Pirates hooker Frost, on his first top-flight start, was held up by Robin Hislop and Jeff Toomaga-Allen.
The other change saw Michael Le Bourgeois switch to outside centre, allowing the prolific boot of Gopperth to return in the other midfield slot.
And it didn’t take long for the New Zealander to make his mark, punishing the Chiefs inside three minutes with a routine penalty from in front of the posts. He was on hand to drill over a simple kick after the visitors had struggled to combat a searing run through the middle by home lock Vaea Fifita.
Home joy, however, proved short-lived as Chiefs skipper Slade drew them level just five minutes later. Having work a brilliant opening down the right for Stuart Hogg, the Devonians came back inside at pace, catching a string of Wasps defenders offside in the middle of the pitch.
It was about right for a lively opening ten minutes, but Wasps were soon reduced to 14 men – albeit for a short period – when winger Josh Bassett was sent to the sidelines by referee Wayne Barnes for a high and dangerous hit on Tom Hendrickson.
Initially the hosts did well to hold the Chiefs at bay whilst they were down a man, scoring a second penalty through Gopperth, but just as Bassett was set to return to the fray, Baxter’s side picked off their rivals with a slick attack. Started by a nice interchange between Richard Capstick and Dave Ewers, it was Cordero who took up the charge, before slipping in Slade who was able to glide over for the game’s opening try.
Moments later and the Chiefs were over again, this time fashioning an opening down the left with some slick hands, before Cordero did the rest, bursting around the outside of Wasps full-back Marcus Watson to claim the score, which was this time converted by Slade.
The Chiefs were seemingly in cruise control, but it was Wasps who would finish the half the stronger, stinging their opponents twice before the interval with scores right out of the Exeter playbook.
Frost was the first to cross, squirming his way over from a five-metre line-out, before Young – who earlier this week confirmed he will be returning to Cardiff next season – replicated the feat with a similar effort as the Chiefs pack struggle to contain the rampant home forwards.
Two successful conversions from Gopperth were enough to wrap up proceedings and give the Midlanders a slender lead at the break.
HALF TIME WASPS 20 EXETER CHIEFS 15
Having used the interval to hammer home a few key messages to his players, Baxter watched on intently as his side started the second period very much on the front foot.
Nowell set the tone with a brilliant take from the kick-off and it was from his efforts that the Chiefs were able to camp themselves deep behind enemy lines. A surge of early raids had them within sniffing distance of the try-line, but just as they looked set to strike they were held back by a plethora of home defenders.
Luke Cowan-Dickie – who later hobbled from the field with an ankle injury after an awkward twist in contact – looked to go from a tap penalty, but he knocked on and Wasps were spared momentarily.
The Chiefs continued to pile forwards in numbers and having seen Hendrickson held up over the line, the visitors continued to do their best to try and hammer away at what was proving a rock solid Wasps rearguard action.
Frost blotted his copybook when he saw yellow for persistent infringing, but still Wasps were holding firm under intense pressure from the Men in White. Another key turnover on their own line was met with roars of approval from many inside the expansive Coventry Stadium.
Execution of plays was continuing to hinder the Chiefs as they headed towards the final quarter of the game. Too often they were guilty of coughing up possession or choosing the wrong option under aggressive defence from Wasps.
Indeed, having soaked up everything the Chiefs had thrown at them, Gopperth extended his side’s lead when he banged over a third penalty after Hill had been penalised for coming across at a line-out.
Two scores adrift and entering into the final quarter, the Chiefs needed to summon a rapid response. Again, Nowell instigated matters with one of his trademark bursts, before the ball was spun out to Cordero, whose slight of feet got him clear before he chipped in behind.
With the race on for the loose ball, it was Watson who just edged things. His actions, though, resulted in a scrum five metres out for the Chiefs. With the forwards locked together, it was No.8 Sam Simmonds who picked from the base and powered his way over for his third try in just two games this season.
Slade’s successful conversion reduced the deficit to a point, triggering a dramatic last blast from the visitors.
It was relentless stuff from both sides, but it was Wasps who still held the advantage as they looked to strike back once again. Afforded the opportunity to position themselves deep into the Exeter 22, they fluffed their lines at the crucial moment, knocking on possession and allowing the Chiefs to counter.
Seizing on the loose ball, the visitors quickly went wide to Slade, whose booming left foot punt saw him land a crucial ‘50/22’ – the new law this season that rewards sides who take on the gamble of kicking deep from their own half into that of the opposition 22.
Now with their own attacking platform, the Chiefs went quickly off the top of the line-out, working the ball across the field through a string of phases, the last of which saw Hill crucially drive over. Slade missed the testing conversion, but it mattered not as the visitors were able to safely negotiate the final few minutes without too much issue.
Wasps: M Watson (A Crossdale 65); Z Kibirige (P Harrison 52-61), M Le Bourgeois, J Gopperth, J Bassett; J Umaga, D Robson (F Hougaard 61); R Hislop (B Harris 61), D Frost (P Harrison 65), J Toomaga-Allen (P Scholtz 61); V Fifita, E Stooke (T Cardall 78); B Shields (capt), T Young (N Carr 59), T Willis. Replacement (not used): W Simonds.
Tries – Frost, Young; Conversions – Gopperth (2); Penalties – Gopperth (2)
Yellow Cards: Bassett, Frost
Chiefs: S Hogg (T O’Flaherty 59); J Nowell (J Simmonds 69), H Slade (capt), T Hendrickson, F Cordero; H Skinner, J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne 59); A Hepburn (B Keast 59-72), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 52), H Williams (S Nixon 59); R McCauley (W Witty 45), J Hill; D Ewers, R Capstick (D Armand 47-53, 59), S Simmonds.
Tries – Slade, Cordero, S Simmonds, Hill; Conversions – Slade (2); Penalty – Slade
Referee: W Barnes