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- Exeter Chiefs
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- Sale Sharks
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Exeter Chiefs 30
Sale Sharks 25
By Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
Exeter Chiefs netted themselves another five-point haul, but head coach Rob Baxter was far from happy despite seeing his side maintain their top two status with this hard-fought victory over visiting Sale Sharks.
The Chiefs survived a real scare from Steve Diamond’s side to record their 11th league win of the campaign courtesy of tries from Kai Horstmann, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Olly Woodburn and Don Armand, but those were the key highlights in a performance that Baxter insisted post-match lacked any real intensity.
Sale made the most of favourable conditions to dominate for much of the first half, claiming a converted try through winger Denny Solomona and a string of penalties from the boot of fly-half AJ MacGinty.
MacGinty would add to his tally after the break, but with the elements now against them, plus an upturn in fortunes for the home side, it was the Chiefs who ultimately prevailed in the end.
Returning to top flight duty after a fortnight of action in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Baxter wasted little time in recalling his frontline stars for the visit of the Sharks to the Westcountry.
Helping to head up the home troops was Cornishman Jack Nowell, who was back in Exeter colours for the first time since helping England regain the RBS Six Nations Championship over the past seven weeks.
Otherwise, the starting line-up was largely unchanged from that which had returned home from Leicester Tigers with all five points in the club’s last Premiership outing.
The Sharks, meanwhile, arrived in Devon looking to not only get their campaign back up and running, but also trying to avenge their earlier defeat by Baxter’s side at the AJ Bell Stadium back in ?
With a ferocious first half wind at their backs, the visitors were quickly on the offensive, taking the game to the Chiefs, who had not tasted defeat in the league since Bath won at Sandy Park back at the end of October.
Early inroads were happily soaked up by the Chiefs, but when the home side were penalised at the scrum by referee Craig Maxwell-Keys on 11 minutes, it allowed American international MacGinty to slot his first points of the afternoon.
The Sale playmaker doubled his tally five minutes later, this time punishing an indiscretion by Stuart Townsend, before he was on hand to add the extras to the first try of the contest, former Rugby League convert Solomona picking off a pass deep inside his own 22 before racing down field to touchdown unopposed.
At 13 points down, the Chiefs needed to summon a rapid response which, crucially, they did within an instance. Using their pack to full effect, Thomas Waldrom linked cleverly with Cowan-Dickie, he returned the pass to the former who cleverly drew in the cover before popping the pass to back-row colleague Horstmann, who spectacularly crossed in the left-hand corner.
Another successful scrum penalty for MacGinty left the Chiefs with plenty to do as half time drew ever closer, but with a minute remaining of the first period, Baxter’s side struck with deadly effect.
An initial catch-and-drive was repelled by some stout Sharks defending, but when the home side were gifted another opportunity, this time they made no mistake, working the ball off the back into a well-constructed maul that allowed Cowan-Dickie to burrow over for the try, which Henry Slade converted.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 12 SALE SHARKS 19
No doubt feeling the heat from Baxter’s half time blast, the Chiefs re-emerged with much greater energy and vigour. From the outset they quickly set about trying to overcome the deficit, laying siege on the Sharks 22 with a succession of early raids.
Positioned nicely deep inside Sale’s half, the Chiefs gleaned two separate penalties. Referee Maxwell-Keys was happy to allow advantage to play – and Exeter made the most of it, fashioning a lovely opening wide on the left that saw Slade sent Woodburn over in the corner for a third try.
Slade missed the testing touchline conversion from wide on the left flank, but his radar was spot on just five minutes later when he drilled a long-range penalty from just inside the Sale half between the sticks to put his side in front for the first time in the contest.
Exeter’s slender advantage, however, would prove short-lived as almost straight from the kick-off, Harry Williams was adjudged the culprit for infringing at a ruck. The prop’s indiscretion was duly punished as MacGinty nudged his side back in front with another successful penalty.
Baxter threw on fresh muscle from the sidelines to re-invigorate things, but still the Chiefs were failing to fire on all cylinders. Two missed line-outs just five metres out were spurned, whilst other chances came and went as the hosts tried to get a little fancy in their end product.
Messages from high in the stands were duly bellowed down to pitch-side and with it came a more direct attacking approach from the Chiefs. Initially, the Sharks did well to hold up the flood of Exeter attacks, that was until the ball came out to skipper Armand, who bolted through a gap, powering his way to the try-line for the all-important fourth score.
Sandy Park duly erupted into a crescendo of noise, not just for Armand’s try, but also for Slade’s resultant conversion and second successful penalty which, with just minutes remaining, crucially put his side two scores clear.
Sale, to their credit, did not go down without a fight and their efforts were rewarded in the final minute with a fifth MacGinty penalty. That at least ensured them of a deserved losing bonus point for the long trek back to Manchester, but it was the Chiefs who took the real bounty come the end.
Baxter knows his side will need to improve in the final furlong of the scheduled season, but in what is sure to be a race to the finish, his Chiefs are nicely positioned on the rails and set to make their final move.
Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell (J Short 79), I Whitten, O Devoto, O Woodburn; H Slade, S Townsend (J Maunder 54); B Moon (C Rimmer 59), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 59), H Williams (T Francis 59); M Lees, G Parling (J Hill 63); K Horstmann (S Simmonds 67), D Armand (capt), T Waldrom. Replacement (not used): J Simmonds
Tries – Horstmann, Cowan-Dickie, Woodburn, Armand; Conversions – Slade (2); Penalties – Slade (2)
Sharks: M Haley; D Solomona, S James, M Jennings (S Bedlow 57), B McGuigan (J Charnley 74); AJ MacGinty, M Phillips (J Mitchell 69); R Harrison (J Flynn 70), R Webber, H Aulika (K Longbottom 63); B Evans (G Nott 69), A Ostrikov (L Pearce 63); C Nield, T Curry (B Curry 57), J Beaumont (capt).
Try – Solomona; Conversion – MacGinty; Penalties – MacGinty (5)
Referee: C Maxwell-Keys