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Exeter Chiefs 27
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Damian Welch’s last-gasp try snatched a dramatic draw for Exeter Chiefs in an enthralling derby with Gloucester at Sandy Park.
With less than a minute remaining, Gloucester’s hopes of a second Aviva Premiership victory of the season were dashed when the Chiefs mauled their way over in the left-hand corner to tie the scores at 27-27.
Even then Rob Baxter’s side could have won it at the death, but the normally deadly Gareth Steenson was unable to land the tricky conversion from wide on the touchline.
Following a disappointing 15-6 defeat at the hands of Bath Rugby last week, Gloucester produced the perfect response with a hard-working, battling performance in Devon.
They held a 17-14 lead at the break thanks largely to tries from the in-form Matt Scott and Charlie Sharples, while Thomas Waldrom and Ian Whitten crossed for the hosts.
That advantage was extended after the interval as England No.8 Ben Morgan plunged over, but Whitten’s second score and a Steenson penalty set up a grandstand finish, before Welch broke Cherry and White hearts.
Back on home soil for the first time in a fortnight, the Chiefs hoped a return to home comforts would also help them rediscover their winning formula having narrowly come unstuck at Northampton Saints the week previous.
Baxter recalled Luke Cowan-Dickie and Julian Salvi to the pack ahead of kick-off, while behind Sam Hill was preferred in the centre to Ollie Devoto.
Like the Chiefs, Gloucester too were looking to fashion a response of sorts having slipped up – for the third time this season on home turf – against Bath the previous week.
In the build-up they were forced to make a couple of late changes with Mark Atkinson promoted from the bench to come in at fly-half, while England international Ben Morgan came in at No.8 in place of Gareth Evans.
With personnel in place, the early exchanges saw both sides look to stamp their authority on the game. However, the line-speed of both defences saw the opening skirmishes restricted to a plethora of heavy collisions, rather than any meaningful rugby.
The Chiefs huffed and puffed initially, but it was the visitors who broke the deadlock on 12 minutes. Jacob Rowan was the quickest to react off a Gloucester line-out, he spotted an opening down the blindside and although he was felled just short of the line, the Cherry and Whites worked the ball back inside to Scott, who was able to cross by the posts for the converted score.
That lead proved short-lived, however, as back roared the Chiefs. A penalty to the corner set the foundations for their opening try, which having driven forward with a well-constructed driving maul, they then used a succession of pick-and-go moves to fashion the opening for Waldrom – on his 50th appearance – to burrow over for his fourth of the season, converted by Steenson.
Such is the nature of games between these two clubs, though, the nip-and-tuck nature continued almost immediately as Gloucester reclaimed their seven-point cushion with a second converted try on 27 minutes.
Sharples – on his 200th appearance for the visitors – was the beneficiary, out jumping Steenson off a Laidlaw box kick to glide over with relative ease.
What wasn’t noticed by the officials, though, was a foot in touch in the build-up to the score from James Hook and although the Chiefs protested to referee Greg Garner, he refused to consult the TMO and the score was duly awarded.
Thankfully, Baxter’s side did not let their frustrations get the better of them and they once again levelled the game up just past the half hour. Having used the forwards to punch their way into enemy territory, the ball was fed out back to the impressive Hill, whose clever footwork saw him evade two Gloucester tacklers, before offloading to Whitten to claim his first of the season.
Steenson again added the extras with a relatively straightforward kick, but it was Gloucester who would go in at the break in front, Twelvetrees landing a long-range penalty on the stroke of half time to give them a slender lead
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 14 GLOUCESTER 17
No doubt warmed by some fierce words from head coach Baxter during the interval, the Chiefs re-emerged after the break with a greater urgency in their play. Early forages into the Gloucester 22 threatened to cause damage, but the visitors held firm, eventually winning a turnover penalty.
At the other end, Woodburn did well to race back and deny Sharples on a counter-attack, while Laidlaw saw a long-range penalty chance drift wide of the mark after Parling had been penalised for coming in at the side.
The Chiefs were causing much of their own problems and when Henry Slade failed to roll away from the tackle area, Scotsman Laidlaw this time made no mistake, drilling over a penalty from 30 metres to extend Gloucester’s lead to six points.
Worse was to follow for Baxter’s side, who slipped further behind just before the hour mark. Turnover ball allowed time and space for David Halaifonua to work in and the Tongan international using his hulking frame and fancy feet to create the opening for Morgan to cross for try number three, converted by Laidlaw.
With a mountain to climb, the Chiefs threw on fresh muscle from the bench in a bid to claw their way back into the contest. Luke Cowan-Dickie powered through with one particular run, but despite the calvary following in close attendance, a knock-on just inches from the line denied Hill from a certain score in the right corner.
It was hardly vintage fair from the Devonians, but to their credit they continued to look for answers. Ollie Devoto, Damian Welch and Harry Williams all offered something off the bench, before a moment of magic from Turner – creating space out wide on the left – saw him offload to Whitten for his second of the afternoon.
Although Steenson – who the week previous had pushed through 2,000 points for the club – failed with the testing touchline conversion, he atoned just moments later with a sublime penalty to cut Gloucester’s advantage to just five points.
The score ignited the home faithful, who to a man (and lady), took to voice to belt out the famous ‘Tomahawk Chop’ from all four corners. All of a sudden the momentum was with the hosts and it was Gloucester who were all of a sudden flagging on the ropes.
Now looking to deliver their own knockout blow, former Gloucester player Dave Lewis milked a penalty for the Chiefs on halfway, Steenson kicked for the corner and the decibel level around Sandy Park hit maximum.
Positioned just five metres from the try-line, the Chiefs assembled en masse for the line-out, Jack Yeandle delivered the throw, Kai Hortsmann collected at the tail before the collective mass came together to drive Welch over for the all-important score.
As Sandy Park erupted, there was still the small matter of Steenson having to take the touchline conversion. With previous form of downing Gloucester with his deadly right boot, sadly the Ulsterman could not quite cap a remarkable fightback as his kick drifted wide.
In truth a share of the spoils was probably a fair outcome, although Baxter will be wanting a marked improvement from his players ahead of next week’s visit of Clermont Auvergne to the Westcountry in the European Champions Cup.
Chiefs: L Turner; O Woodburn, S Hill, H Slade (O Devoto 59), I Whitten; G Steenson (capt), W Chudley (D Lewis 59), B Moon (C Rimmer 72), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 66), G Holmes (H Williams 59); M Lees (D Welch 51), G Parling; D Dennis (K Horstmann 20-29, 51), J Salvi, T Waldrom. Replacement (not used): M Bodilly.
Tries – Waldrom, Whitten (2), Welch; Conversions – Steenson (2); Penalty – Steenson
Gloucester: J Hook; C Sharples (O Thorley 71), M Scott, B Twelvetrees, D Halaifonua; M Atkins, G Laidlaw (capt); P McAllister (Y Thomas 49), R Hibbard (M Matu’u 42-48, 68), P Doran-Jones; T Savage (J Latta 57), M Galarza; R Moriarty, J Rowan (M Kvesic 59), B Morgan. Replacements (not used): N Thomas, W Heinz, L Ludlow.
Tries – Scott, Sharples, Morgan; Conversions – Laidlaw (3); Penalties – Twelvetrees, Laidlaw
Referee: G Garner