Exeter Chiefs 12
Leicester Tigers 16
Mark Stevens at the Twickenham Stoop
In the week of the world famous Cheltenham Festival, Exeter Chiefs came a cropper in the final furlong as Leicester Tigers took the honours in this season’s Anglo-Welsh Cup.
Despite a spirited second half showing from Ricky Pellow’s side, they left themselves too much to do against English rugby’s most decorated club.
The Tigers lifted the Anglo-Welsh prize for the third time thanks to a first half try from winger Tom Brady and the boot of prized fly-half Freddie Burns.
The Chiefs countered with a first half try from winger James Short and another in the dying embers from No.8 Sam Simmonds, but it was not to be as they departed the Twickenham Stoop in disappointment, rather than triumph.
Running out for their third successive Anglo-Welsh Cup final, the Chiefs arrived in the capital with a largely unchanged side from that which had seen off Harlequins a week previous.
Up front, Carl Rimmer, Greg Holmes and Dave Ewers were all added to the mix, while behind there were starts for Jack Maunder and Short, who days earlier had been crowned the Premiership’s Player of the Month for February.
The Tigers, themselves no strangers to the big occasion, paraded a powerful line-up for the season’s first major showpiece event which included key stars such as Peter Betham, Ellis Genge, Graham Kitchener, Lachie McCaffrey and the deadly boot of Burns.
With a strong wind at their backs in the first half, the Chiefs started brightly and quickly set about trying to pick up from where they had left off against Quins. Early endeavour got them positioned nicely in the Tigers 22, but despite dominating possession and territory, they were unable to find a way through the resolute Leicester defence.
Having soaked up Exeter’s opening salvo, the Tigers proceeded down field and took the lead on 13 minutes when referee Tom Foley pulled up the Chiefs for infringing at a ruck. Up stepped England international Burns to drill the kick between the sticks for the first success of the afternoon.
Tigers joy would prove short-lived, however, as within three minutes it was the Chiefs who had stolen in front. Using a line-out midway inside their rivals half, the ball was worked off the top inside to the Exeter midfield, whose clever mis-move allowed time and space for Short.
Still with plenty to do, the in-form winger bounced Leicester skipper Mat Tait out of the way before showing a clean pair of heels to Brady to score in the right-hand corner.
The score ignited the Travelling Tribe into a thunderous chorus of the ‘Tomahawk Chop’, but it would be the only time they had reason to cheer in the first period as the Tigers wrestled back the advantage.
Brady’s intercept try on 19 minutes, when he picked off a telegraphed pass from Matt Jess, saw him outpace the Exeter winger to claim Leicester’s opening try, which Burns duly converted.
The Leicester playmaker would add two more successful penalties before the break, the second of which saw Chiefs hooker Shaun Malton sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Harry Thacker.
While in between, Joe Simmonds was adrift with his latest shot at goal, pulling a routine penalty wide of the far post after Fraser Balmain was singled out by referee Tom Foley for not releasing.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 5 LEICESTER TIGERS 16
Needing a strong start to the second period, the Chiefs came out firing on the resumption and were afforded an early opportunity to reduce the deficit with just three minutes played. Again, though, Joe Simmonds could not capitalise, pulling his long-range effort wide of the left post.
Undeterred, the Chiefs threatened again and they thought they had made the necessary inroads. Fantastic footwork from Max Bodilly in midfield saw him leave a wake of defenders behind him, before he offloaded to Turner, who in turn fed Maunder to cross over the line.
Immediately referee Foley went to the TV match official and, following a succession of replays, the score was chalked off. Not for anything Maunder did in the grounding, but earlier in the build-up where former Tiger, Julian Salvi, was adjudged to have knocked on under pressure from Thacker.
The Tigers – as they had done in the first half – withstood the early Exeter pressure before countering themselves with a series of attacking waves. The Chiefs, though, were determined to stay in touch and defended as though their very existence depended on it.
Turning defence into attack, so Pellow’s side started to crank up the gears. With Ewers to the fore with some ferocious carrying, they again propelled themselves down field and to within touching distance of the Leicester line.
A succession of drives for the line got them to within sight, only for Leicester to somehow dig deep into their reserves and withstand the threat. What followed was a series of five-metres scrum, the fruits of which failed to deliver for the Chiefs who, eventually, were penalised by Foley for infringing through replacement prop Jack Owlett.
Both sides emptied their benches in the final quarter as the effects of a physically demanding tussle started to really kick in. The Chiefs, though, continued to pile forward in numbers as they looked to rescue something right at the death.
Exeter ran through over 35 phases in a punishing passage of play that not only sucked the life out of themselves, but also the impressive Tigers whose defence – which was borderline at times – continued to hold firm.
In the end, the relentless pressure of the Chiefs finally told asd they hammered down the Tigers defensive wall with one final thrust. The beneficiary was Sam Simmonds, who clever footwork just yards from the line, saw him power in under the sticks for Will Hooley to convert.
Still with two minutes on the clock, the Chiefs still had a semblance of time to maybe rescue something right at the death. They regathered the restart promptly and set about trying to unpick their rivals once more. Initially it looked good, but a spilled ball with just 30 seconds left condemned their fate.
The Tigers did what they had to do, seeing out the final seconds, before the ball was dispatched to the back of the DHL Stand.
For the Chiefs it was another day or hurt on Finals Day, but already they are focusing their attentions to further down the line and who knows another trip to Twickers, this time at the bigger coliseum across the Whitton Road.
Chiefs: L Turner; M Jess, M Bodilly, S Hill (T Hendrickson 71), J Short; J Simmonds (W Hooley 71), J Maunder (H Thomas 70); C Rimmer (B Keast 70), S Malton (E Taione 64), G Holmes (J Owlett 65); O Atkins (S Skinner 56), D Welch; D Ewers (T Johnson 70), J Salvi (capt), S Simmonds (E Taione 46-51).
Tries – Short, S Simmonds; Conversion – Hooley
Tigers: G Worth; P Betham, M Tait (capt, M Smith 78), J Roberts, T Brady; F Burns (O Williams 63-70), J Kitto (B White 70); E Genge (M Rizzo 75), G McGuigan (T Youngs 70), F Balmain (G Bateman 51); H Wells, G Kitchener (D Barrow 65); M Williams, H Thacker, L McCaffrey (L Hamilton 67).
Try – Brady; Conversion – Burns; Penalties – Burns (2)
Referee: T Foley