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Bath Rugby 11
Exeter Chiefs 17
Mark Stevens at the Recreation Ground
In a year packed full of sparkle, Exeter Chiefs perhaps saved their shining moment for the final day of 2016.
Seemingly down and out in a full-blooded Westcountry derby with rivals Bath, two late tries from James Short enabled Rob Baxter’s side to celebrate a first-ever victory in the ancient Roman City.
Sure, Devon’s finest had triumphed at the Rec in the old LV= Cup, but never before had they had they won when it came to league matters. This was the perfect way to start the New Year’s Eve party.
Bossed for the opening hour of this match, the Chiefs trailed 11-0 at the break as George Ford collected two penalties and Semesa Rokodoguni claimed the game’s opening try with a smart finish in the corner.
However, a half time pep talk from Baxter cleared had the desired effect as the Chiefs – who lost in the eighth minute of injury time when the two met earlier in the season at Sandy Park – gained sweet revenge with their late heroics.
Gareth Steenson started the ball rolling with an early penalty and the Dungannon-born marksman was able to convert Short’s late brace to seal a magical festive period for him and his side.
Bath did their best to try and salvage a late rescue mission, but it floundered under a wave of late Exeter defence.
Having picked up maximum reward against Leicester Tigers on Christmas Eve, Baxter saw little reason to tinker too much with his winning formation. Indeed, the sole change he did make was an enforced one, England international Henry Slade ruled out with a neck injury, so Sam Hill came into the midfield to partner former Bath old-boy, Ollie Devoto.
The hosts, meanwhile, made three changes to their starting XV undone by Wasps on the same day. All of them came in the pack where Tom Dunn was named at hooker and Tom Ellis and Zach Mercer were brought into the back-row alongside Springbok flanker Francois Louw.
With a capacity crowd packed inside the Rec for this final game of the year, it was Bath who started the brighter. Todd Blackadder’s side flew out of the traps in the early exchanges, forcing early possession and territory on Baxter’s side.
To a man, however, the Chiefs held firm under sustained pressure, before turning defence into attack to fashion an opening of their own. Rather than go for a kick at goal, skipper Steenson opted to boot a penalty award to the left corner, banking on his pack to try and drive home their authority as they did the week previous.
Sadly, the line-out failed to find its target, allowing Bath to lap up the loose ball and clear the danger with relative ease.
At the other end, the hosts took the more pragmatic approach when they were awarded a penalty of their own, England international Ford punishing Devoto for infringing at a ruck with a kick that cannoned in off the right post.
Bath clearly had the bit between their teeth and they continued to push forward in pursuit of further reward. Steenson did well to act as a brave speed bump to halt the progress of the marauding Dave Attwood, who had found himself in time and space before charging down field at a rate of knots.
Thankfully the Irishman did enough to thwart the lock in his prime and the Chiefs countered back downfield, winning a second penalty chance which this time they opted to kick at goal for.
Again, though, they could not capitalise as this time Steenson pulled his long-range effort narrowly wide of the right post.
With the territory battle resulting in a spot of kick tennis for a period, it was the lively Rokoduguni who took the bull by the horns, returning one punt with a chip over the top of the Exeter defence, before regathering and setting off towards the try-line.
Steenson again found himself in the path of the Fijian in full flight, but he rounded the Exeter playmaker, only to be hauled to the floor just inches from the line by a wonderful saving tackle from international colleague Jack Nowell.
Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys was unsure as to whether it was a try or not, so he consulted the TV match official, who confirmed the news that the Bath winger had not made the line. Instead, the hosts were given a five-metre scrum from which they gleaned a second successful penalty from Ford.
Bath were dominating proceedings and having threatened again with another close-range burst from Matt Garvey, they claimed the game’s opening try just before the break when Rokoduguni proved too hot to handle, finishing with aplomb in the right corner to make it 11-0.
The Chiefs did their best to summon a response of sorts before the half drew to a close, but they were met with some stubborn resistance from Bath, who happily held them at bay until the turn.
HALF TIME BATH RUGBY 11 EXETER CHIEFS 0
No doubt warmed by some harsh words from Baxter during the break, the Chiefs started the second half brightly as Devoto, Nowell and Don Armand all made decent inroads into the Bath 22.
As had been the case in the first half, though, the visitors struggled to make a definitive breakthrough as solid defence from the home side, coupled with handling errors from the Chiefs, allowed the threat to be covered with consumate ease.
Baxter looked to his bench to ignite some much-needed fire into his side and the move appeared to have some substance as Luke Cowan-Dickie and Carl Rimmer both made significant inroads with early carries.
Bath were proving as miserly as Ebenezer Scrooge in terms of defence, hitting their rivals back at every opportunity and gleaning a renewed confidence with every completed tackle made.
In attack, Ford saw an attempted drop-goal from way out fall short of the mark, before the Chiefs looked to fashion something of their own. A scrum penalty midway through the half gave Steenson another shot at goal – and this time the fly-half made no mistake, drilling a kick from 40 metres between the home posts.
But no sooner had the Chiefs given themselves a potential lifeline back into the match, they then gifted Bath key territory when Dollman’s attempted clearance was charged down by Jonathan Joseph. It instigated a full-on attacking charge from the home side, one in which Anthony Watson almost squirmed over in the corner.
However, Dollman atoned for his earlier error, producing a superb try-saving tackle to bundle the England winger into touch just metres from the Exeter line.
It proved a crucial intervention for the visitors, who preceded downfield with a flurry of attacking waves. It was energy-sapping stuff from the Chiefs and in the end it paid dividends when Cowan-Dickie bulldozed his way through the heart of the home defence, juggling the ball along the way, before feeding Short who was able to speed his way over for the score.
Steenson obliged with a sublime conversion to put his side just a point adrift with just minutes remaining in this absorbing contest.
The drama, however, was far from finished and as the Chiefs pack began to get on top, so it provided the launchpad for a late hurrah from the visitors. A series of attacking waves had them on the front foot and pressing hard on the home try-line.
Nowell, crowned man of the match by the TV pundits, fashioned an opening with a mazy run and when the forwards took charge, they drove for the line with a desire that had been sadly missing in the opening half.
Just as they looked poised to strike, the ball flew out of a ruck and the chance appeared over. However, quick-thinking from Steenson saw him scoop the ball between his legs into the arms of Short, who made no mistake diving over from five metres out.
The Exeter faithful erupted with delight, as did the Chiefs players and coaching team. This was a telling moment, made all the sweeter as Steenson slotted the conversion to put his side in front for the first time in the game.
All that was left to do was for the visitors to soak up the restart and grind down the clock. It wasn’t quite midnight in Bath Rugby’s own coliseum, but the party had duly started.
Roll on 2017.
Bath: T Homer; S Rokoduguni, J Joseph, B Tapuai (M Clark 78), A Brew (A Watson 52); G Ford, K Fotuali’i; N Catt (N Auterac 18, M Van Vuuren 61-74), T Dunn, M Lahiff (S Knight 36); M Garvey (capt, E Stooke 62), D Attwood; T Elis, F Louw (P Grant 66), Z Mercer. Replacements (not used): D Allinson, A Watson.
Try – Rokoduguni; Penalties – Ford (2)
Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell, O Devoto, S Hill, O Woodburn (J Short 52); G Steenson (capt), W Chudley (J Maunder 62); B Moon (C Rimmer 50), J Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie 50), T Francis (G Holmes 50); M Lees, J Hill (O Atkins 63); D Dennis (K Horstmann 60), D Armand, T Waldrom. Replacement (not used): J Simmonds.
Tries – Short (2); Conversions – Steenson (2); Penalty – Steenson
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys