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- Exeter Chiefs
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Exeter Chiefs 10
Bath Rugby 13
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
The clocks may have gone back overnight, but Bath used over time at Sandy Park to seal themselves a priceless Aviva Premiership victory over Exeter Chiefs.
Winger Semesa Rokoduguni landed the knockout blow for Todd Blackadder’s high-flying oufit, flooring the Devon outfit with a try seven minutes into added on time.
The England international powered his way to the line to seal a remarkable result for the visitors, whose other points on the day came from the boot of George Ford.
Up until then, however, Rob Baxter’s side looked to have been on course for a notable scalp, this after skipper Gareth Steenson had landed a penalty and also converted Mitch Lees’ second half score.
Sadly, it was not to be for last season’s beaten Premiership finalists, who will have been left hurting by this latest setback, such was the effort they put into a bruising contest.
Back to domestic duties after a testing fortnight of European Champions Cup action, Baxter made just one change in personnel to his starting line-up for the visit of Bath. That came up front where the injured Julian Salvi (bicep) was replaced by Aussie international Dave Dennis in the back-row.
Bath, meanwhile, made eight changes to their line-up from that which had seen off local rivals Bristol in the Challenge Cup just a week earlier.
Five of them came in the pack where there were recalls for Ross Batty, Henry Thomas, Dave Attwood, Tom Ellis and Charlie Ewels, while behind England duo Ford and Rokoduguni and Kahn Fotuali’i were also added as Kiwi coach Blackadder looked to add some real firepower to his ranks.
With a capacity crowd in place, it was Bath who set the early running, looking to probe away at the home defences with a catalogue of powerful drives up through the middle. The Chiefs, however, were having none of it, manfully throwing themselves into every collision.
It was the sign of things to come in what would prove a brutal first half of action. Both sides were happy to go ‘full bore’ at one another, but neither were willing to give an inch in a bid to protect their line.
Ford had the first chance to break the deadlock on 11 minutes after Dennis had been harshly adjudged to have entered the ruck illegally, but the normally predatory England goal kicker shanked his effort wide of the mark.
At the other end, opposite number Steenson showed how it should be done, making no mistake with his first effort – albeit a much easier attempt – as he punished Fotuali’i for infringing in front of his own sticks after Exeter had worked their way through a series of attacking phases.
Five minutes later and Ford was offered a second shot at goal when Moray Low was adjudged to have dropped a scrum deep inside his own 22. Again, the Bath playmaker could not capitalise, this time firing wide of the far post, much to the delight of the home faithful.
As the half ticked by, Bath continued to press hard in attack, but Baxter’s side were producing an outstanding defensive effort, thwarting their every move, eventually winning two turnover penalties in quick succession for their industrious work.
Even when Bath did finally find space out wide, working an opening for the dangerous Rokoduguni, James Short was on hand to produce an excellent cover tackle, bundling the England winger into touch as he closed in on the line with virtually the last play of the half.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 3 BATH RUGBY 0
With little to choose between either side at the turn, it was Bath who were again first to show on the resumption. The visiting heavy pack were looking to make inroads, but it was from a spate of kick tennis that the visitors thought they had claimed the game’s opening try.
Deep inside their own half, Bath punted the ball forward – but in flight it was touched by a Chiefs hand – and the visitors were quickest to react. In the ensuing free-for-all, an exchange of passes saw Attwood released in space, before the towering lock advanced his way towards the home line for the score.
Whilst he celebrated with his team-mates, referee Ian Tempest was quick to call in the advice of TV match official David Grasshoff. Both wanted to check the final ball to Attwood and – following numerous replays – the score was correctly chalked off for a forward pass.
It was a momentary let-off for Baxter’s side, who with the resultant scrum, conceded a penalty that allowed Ford to this time find his range, drilling an effort from 25 metres out to restore parity.
Baxter turned to his bench to liven up proceedings and the introduction of Elvis Taione and Tomas Francis in particular helped to give the Devonians some real heavyweight punch in attack. Like the Chiefs, Bath were hellbent on keeping their line intact, propelling numerous bodies into every tackle.
Home pressure was beginning to mount and when a dominant scrum just inside the Bath half resulted in a penalty, Slade had the chance to restore their advantage. Sadly, the England star could not capitalise, his long-range kick had the distance, but sadly not the accuracy, sliding wide of the right post.
Four minutes later and it was Bath who edged themselves in front for the first time, Ford doubling his tally when Lees was deemed to have played Fotuali’i without the ball.
Now with just ten minutes remaining, the Chiefs had to summon a response of their own as they looked to wrestle back the lead. As the decibel levels around Sandy Park rose a notch, so the Exeter pack began to form together as a destructive unit. With line-out ball just outside the Bath 22, they drove as one – aided by the odd back – at a rate of knots towards the visiting line.
As Bath bodies spewed out at every angle as the juggernaut careered towards the line, it was Lees who was deemed to have touched down for the try, converted by Steenson, to put the Chiefs back in front at 10-6.
The drama, it has to be said, was far from finished as first Steenson saw a penalty chance slip wide that would have put his side a converted score in front, while at the other end Bath pressed hard to fashion a glimmer of hope in the dying embers.
Successive penalties allowed Blackadder’s side to gain crucial territory deep inside the Exeter 22, before they gleaned another penalty after the Chiefs had infringed. With no time to kick the ball into touch, a succession of scrums saw the clock elapse past 80 minutes.
Referee Tempest warned both front-rows over their antics at the set-piece. Neither side were willing to give an inch, but eventually the ball did come out on the Bath side and the visitors pressed once more. For a period the hosts did all that was required of them, digging deep to deny their every move. That was until the ball was worked for a final time to the right to Rokoduguni, who with two men still to beat, was able to shake off the attenions of Messrs Steenson and Woodburn to land a killer blow.
His last-gasp try not only won Bath the match and local bragging rights, but ensured they remain in the top three after the opening block of top flight fixtures.
Yet again it was another bitter pill to swallow for Baxter and his side, who had given so much, yet had been undone at the death.
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner (O Devoto 28); O Woodburn, I Whitten, H Slade, J Short (S Hill 61), G Steenson (capt), D Lewis (J Maunder); M Low (C Rimmer 43), J Yeandle (E Taione 28-35, 40), H Williams (T Francis 47); M Lees, G Parling (J Hill 54); D Dennis (B White 76), K Horstmann, T Waldrom.
Try – Lees; Conversion – Steenson; Penalty – Steenson
Bath Rugby: T Homer; S Rokoduguni, J Joseph, M Banahan, A Brew (J Williams 68); G Ford, K Fotuali’i; N Auterac (M Lahiff 58), R Batty (T Dunn 53), H Thomas (K Palma-Newport 38-40, 68), L Charteris (E Stooke 53), D Attwood; M Garvey (capt), T Ellis (G Mercer 76), C Ewels. Replacements (not used): W Homer, R Priestland.
Try – Rokoduguni; Conversion – Ford; Penalties – Ford (2)
Referee: I Tempest.