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- Exeter Chiefs
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Exeter Chiefs 38
Bristol Rugby 34
Mark Stevens at Sandy Park
As the usual runners and riders position themselves for the final furlong, Exeter Chiefs have safely overcome their first seasonal hurdle by booking their place in the Aviva Premiership’s end of season play-offs.
On Grand National Day, Rob Baxter’s side notched up win number 12 of the campaign, but not before being given an almighty fright by basement battlers Bristol, who threatened to pull off a shock success in this entertaining local derby.
Thankfully, the Chiefs had too much in the tank for their near neighbours, sealing victory with a Thomas Waldrom double and further touchdowns from Olly Woodburn, Geoff Parling and Ian Whitten.
Fly-half Henry Slade weighed in with a further 11 points with replacement Gareth Steenson completing the job with a late conversion.
Bristol, fighting for their top-flight existence, put up one huge effort with Gavin Henson leading the charge for the visitors. He not only grabbed one of their four tries, but he slotted all four conversions and two penalties in a polished performance.
Will Hurrell, Jason Woodward and Mitch Eadie added their other scores which, at the very least, ensured they headed back up the road with some reward for their efforts on the day.
With both sides returning to action after the European break, Baxter made three changes to his starting line-up from that which had beaten Sale Sharks last time out.
Up front, there were recalls for lock Jonny Hill and back-row forward Dave Dennis, while behind Jack Maunder was given the nod at scrum-half over Stu Townsend, who dropped down to a star-studded bench that included the return of Greg Holmes, Dave Ewers, Michele Campagnaro and Gareth Steenson, who seven years previous had kicked the Chiefs into the Premiership at the expense of Bristol.
The visitors, meanwhile, were buoyed ahead of kick-off by the return of former Wales and British Lions back Gavin Henson, plus wingers Jack Tovey and Ryan Edwards, the latter of whom was making his first start since December after recovering from a hernia injury.
With the game delayed 15 minutes due to an earlier incident on the M5, it was the Chiefs who – on a baking hot day in the Westcountry – came out firing on all cylinders.
Less than two minutes had elapsed when Baxter’s side made their first significant impression, smart approach work released Ian Whitten, whose strong charge through the heart of the visiting defence created the opening for Woodburn to race over in the left corner.
Slade landed a sublimed touchline conversion, but the England international’s next contribution was not so good, his intended pass inside picked off by Bristol centre Hurrell, who was able to race unopposed to the sticks for the score.
Welsh international Henson slotted the easy two-pointer, before adding a further three points just minutes later when the Chiefs were penalised for straying offside in midfield.
Worse was to follow for the home side as they fell further behind when Kiwi full-back lapped up a loose Chiefs pass to again race clear from deep inside his own half and under the posts at the South End for Bristol’s second score, again converted by the boot of Henson.
It was a less than impressive start from Baxter’s side, but they were able to counter at the end of the first quarter when, with a scrum positioned right in front of the Bristol posts, they milked a penalty that Slade converted with ease.
Home cheers, though, proved short-lived as straight from the kick-off the Chiefs leaked a third try. Winger Jack Tovey was the architect as he brushed aside the attentions of three home defenders before eventually being hauled to the floor. Bristol, however, recycled at pace to send Henson over in the corner for the try, which he also converted with aplomb.
Clearly not at the races, the Chiefs needed to summon a rapid response. Unfortunately, that response was not materialising as the catalogue of handling errors, loose play and wrong decision-making continued to hamper the home cause.
If head coach Baxter was less than impressed with his side’s first half display in the last home outing against Sale, then he was clearly fuming with this latest performance.
As the half drew to a close, the Chiefs started to up the tempo and with it they positioned themselves deep behind enemy lines. Some ferocious attack got them to within sight of the Bristol line, only for the visitors to infringe just inches from the whitewash.
Undeterred, Baxter’s side continued to press forward and, with the very last action of the half, they made a crucial breakthrough when Parling powered over in the corner off a pass from Phil Dollman. Slade converted again from the touchline to put his side within a score at the turn.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 17 BRISTOL RUGBY 24
With their ears no doubt still ringing from Baxter’s half time tirade, it took the Chiefs less than a minute to get their act in order. Dollman and Waldrom provided the Launchpad from which the hosts worked the opening for Whitten to pick a lovely line through the middle to score converted try number three.
Whatever was mooted within the confines of the home changing room during the interval, it clearly had the desired effect with the ‘Men in Black.
Whereas in the first half Exeter’s approach appeared laboured and somewhat bitty, now there was a cut and thrust to their attack that Bristol were finding hard to contain.
Forwards Cowan-Dickie, Parling, Dennis and Armand, now boosted by the hulking frame of Dave Ewers, were providing the necessary go forward from which the home side could now lay siege on their rivals.
Initially Bristol did well to contain the home swell, but when the Chiefs were awarded a penalty deep inside their visiting 22, they opted for the corner rather than a shot at goal.
Bristol knew what was coming, but they could not halt the inevitable, the Exeter eight combining as one to send Waldrom over for the bonus point score, converted again by Slade.
The score, it seemed, would ignite the Chiefs for a powerful finish to the contest. Instead, it was Bristol who countered, first with a penalty from Henson, then a bonus point try from No.8 Eadie, who was able to coast over after a Searle cross-field kick had fallen favourably for the visitors.
The helter-skelter nature of the contest continued apace as the game entered into the final quarter. However, the Chiefs were struggling to find their earlier rhythm. A succession of close-range line-outs failed to land any reward, whilst Bristol capitalised on yet more errors from the home side.
As the minutes ticked by, so the unease inside the stadium started to mount. Baxter’s side, however, are nothing but resolute and in a defiant last throw, they got their just reward when Waldrom burrowed over for his second of the contest.
It sparked scenes of delirium around the stadium, not just in the fact that Exeter were back in front, but the destiny of their season remains firmly in their hands with just three rounds of battle remaining.
Next stop it’s Twickenham and a clash with Harlequins on Good Friday!
Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell (M Campagnaro 60), I Whitten, O Devoto (G Steenson 60), O Woodburn; H Slade, J Maunder (S Townsend 68); B Moon (C Rimmer 51), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 76), H Williams (G Holmes 51); M Lees (G Parling 39), J Hill (D Ewers 42); D Dennis, D Armand (capt), T Waldrom.
Tries – Woodburn, Parling, Whitten, Waldrom (2); Conversions – Slade (4), Steenson; Penalty – Slade
Bristol: J Woodward; R Edwards, W Hurrell, G Henson, J Tovey; B Searle, A Mathewson (R Williams 64); R Bevington(J O’Connell 36), M Jones (capt, M Crumpton 54), G Cortes (J Ford-Robinson h/t); J Phillips (B Glynn 67), M Sorenson; S Jeffries, J Lam (N Fenton-Wells 11), M Eadie. Replacements (not used): J Newey, C Amesbury.
Tries – Hurrell, Woodward, Henson, Eadie; Conversions – Henson (4); Penalties – Henson (2)
Referee: T Foley