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Exeter Chiefs 35
By Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs maintained their top three placing in the Aviva Premiership with a hard-fought draw against leaders Wasps at Sandy Park.
In what was a pulsating encounter from start to finish, Rob Baxter’s side couldn’t quite sneak over the finish line to secure maximum reward, this despite playing most of the second half with 14 men following a red card for lock Jonny Hill.
Joe Simpson’s converted score ten minutes from time enabled the visitors to claim a share of the spoils and maintain their lofty position after 14 rounds of battle.
Earlier, the two sides had shared a further nine tries, six of which came during an opening 40 minutes which saw the two sides go in the at the break level at 21-21
Christian Wade and Alex Rieder sandwiched a penalty try for the visitors, while the Chiefs – up against a strong breeze in the first half – countered with converted scores of their own through debutant Sam Simmonds, Jack Maunder and a penalty try of their own.
England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie put the Chiefs in front early in the second half, but the game was then turned on its head when Hill was dismissed by referee Greg Garner for a high shoulder charge to the face of Ashley Johnson.
Wasps made their numerical advantage pay almost immediately as Danny Cipriani fashioned a bonus point score for Kyle Eastmond under the posts.
The Chiefs, though, rallied defiantly and reclaimed their lead when winger Olly Woodburn squirmed over from close range for skipper Gareth Steenson to slot a fifth successful conversion.
Although the Devonians did their best to repel the attacking force of Wasps for much of the second period, finally their defensive dam burst when Frank Halai countered cleverly with fellow replacement Simpson, who was able to dot down under the posts for a crucial score that was converted by Jimmy Gopperth.
Whether this was three points gained for the Chiefs – or two potentially that have fallen by the wayside – it was a pulsating encounter for the crowd of just over 12,000.
With the two clubs locking horns for the second time inside a month – the Chiefs won the earlier Anglo-Welsh Cup showdown 52-5 – this latest match-up was always going to be a much tighter affair.
Wasps, aided by the cold and blustery conditions during the opening half, started brightly and took just five minutes to open their account, England winger Wade feeding off a pass from Gopperth to silence the home faithful early on.
However, the Chiefs were level within minutes. Hill charged down an attempted clearance from Cipriani who, despite claiming the rebound, was bundled over his own line by the onrushing Woodburn.
Now with a five-metre scrum to work off, the initial set-piece dropped to the floor, before the Chiefs took charge at the second attempt. Thrusting forward at a rate of knots, referee Greg Garner was all but set to award a penalty try, only for Simmonds – who earlier in the day had penned a new two-year deal with the club – dotted down for his maiden top flight score.
The free-flowing, end-to-end action showed no sign of abating and when Mitch Lees was sin-binned for a professional foul just yards from his own line, it was the turn of the Wasps forwards to show their might, winning a penalty try – converted by Gopperth – to restore their lead.
Thankfully, it was not long before Lees was back in the fray and with numerical parity restored, the scoreline was also levelled up when scrum-half Maunder scampered over for his first Premiership try, rounding off a great break from full-back Phil Dollman.
Home cheers again proved short-lived, however, as almost straight from the restart the visitors were back in front, great work from Dan Robson at the base of a ruck saw him snipe around the corner before he offloaded to No.8 Rieder to score with ease.
Again, the Chiefs regrouped almost initially and sensing they had the edge up front, they used their tried and trusted driving line-out to position themselves within strike range. The first penalty attempt was dragged to the floor, before the second chance was again impeded by the visitors, who not only conceded a penalty try, but also lost flanker Thomas Young to the sidelines for ten minutes just before the break.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 21 WASPS 21
The scoring spree showed no sign of abating on the resumption as the Chiefs took just four minutes to get in front for the first time. Hooker Cowan-Dickie picked a lovely line off a pass from Maunder, before bulldozering his way to the line for the all-important fourth score.
It was the perfect start to proceedings for Baxter’s side in this top of the table encounter. However, their glee was to prove momentary as within two minutes they were reduced to 14 men for the remainder of the contest.
Hill threw himself into a collision just inside his own half, but Garner wanted his on-field actions checked. The game was duly halted, replays were shown numerous times, before the former England Under-20s forward was dismissed for what was perceived to be a high hit to the face of South African Johnson.
Within a minute Wasps made the numbers game pay, drilling their way into the Exeter 22 through their pack, before the ball was fed out to the mercurial Cipriani, whose slightly delayed pass allowed Eastmond the easiest of chances to run in under the sticks.
Still with little to choose between either side, the Chiefs dug deep into their reserves and brilliantly reclaimed the lead when Woodburn was able to cross the whitewash, finishing off some smart approach work from the home forwards in the build-up.
That would prove the last meaningful action of the game for the former Bath winger, who was duly replaced by Sam Skinner as the Chiefs opted to go for a full array of stock up front.
The tactic appeared to be working well as the hosts continued to press hard in attack, using a simply eight-man approach to pound away at the home line. Sadly, a crucial turnover spared Wasps on one definitive occasion and having survived the threat, they then threw caution to the wind in attack.
Prop Simon McIntyre showed a brilliant turn of speed to link well with James Gaskell, but as the ball went wide to Aussie star Kurtley Beale, the Chiefs did just about enough to deny their rivals with some pressing scramble defence.
As the minutes ticked by, so it looked as though the Chiefs may well hold on for a precious victory – one which would have made it ten in a row at Sandy Park against Wasps – but the visitors had other ideas.
With ten minutes left on the clock, they made the most of Exeter kicking away possession, countering with deadly effect. Working the ball across field to winger Halai, he trundled down field before offloading to Simpson, who waltzed his way to the line for a fifth converted score.
It was somewhat hard on the Chiefs, who had given much despite the loss of Hill earlier in the half. That said, three points against the leaders was no bad return, now they must ready themselves for an equally tough assignment at Worcester this Saturday.
Chiefs: P Dollman; O Woodburn (S Skinner 52), I Whitten, O Devoto (H Slade 74), J Short; G Steenson (capt), J Maunder (S Townsend 66); B Moon (C Rimmer 54), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 64), G Holmes (H Williams 49); M Lees, J Hill; D Dennis (T Johnson 65), D Armand, S Simmonds. Replacement (not used): L Turner.
Tries – S Simmonds, Maunder, Penalty Try, Cowan-Dickie, Woodburn; Conversions – Steenson (5)
Yellow Card: Lees
Red Card: J Hill
Wasps: K Beale; C Wade, J Gopperth, K Eastmond (A Leiua 71), J Bassett (F Halai 65); D Cipriani, D Robson (J Simpson 65); S McIntyre, C Festuccia (J Gaskell 52), M Moore (J Cooper-Wooley 55); M Symons, K Myall (W Rowlands 52); A Johnson (capt), T Young, A Rieder. Replacements (not used): T Cruse, T Bristow,
Tries – Wade, Penalty Try, Rieder, Eastmond, Simpson; Conversions – Gopperth (5)
Yellow Card: Young
Referee: G Garner