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- Exeter Chiefs
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Exeter Chiefs 34
Mark Stevens at Kingsholm
Exeter Chiefs will have home advantage against defending champions Saracens in this season’s Aviva Premiership play-offs after Rob Baxter’s side continued their rich vein of form at the expense of rivals Gloucester.
In a full-blooded contest at Kingsholm, Devon’s finest were made to work for every bit of their latest five-point haul which, come the final whistle, ensured them of a top two finish.
A similar outcome for leaders Wasps in their top of the table clash with Sarries meant they topped the pile at the end of the scheduled season, but it’s the Chiefs who will head into the last four with the best momentum of any side following a record-breaking eighth successive try bonus success.
Ian Whitten, Ben Moon, James Short and Will Chudley claimed the all-important touchdowns for the visitors, while skipper Gareth Steenson weighed in with the remainder of the home side’s points.
In reply, Jonny May’s brace, plus another from Lewis Ludlow, had the Chiefs momentarily on the ropes, as did some precise first half kicking from the returning Greig Laidlaw.
Ahead of kick-off, Baxter was forced to change his winning formula from that which had created history against Northampton Saints the week previous. Up front, there was a new-look front-row of Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Harry Williams, while further changes in the pack saw Ollie Atkins and Julian Salvi also brought in from the outset.
Behind, the back division was largely untouched with England international Jack Nowell switched to full-back in the absence of Lachie Turner, while leading try-scorer James Short was recalled to fill the vacant berth on the wing.
Gloucester, who themselves have a European Final to look forward to in a week’s time, brought Matt Scott back into their line-up for the first time in March, while other changes saw Charlie Sharples return on the right wing and Laidlaw and Billy Twelvetrees form a new half-back pairing.
With a capacity crowd packed into Kingsholm, both sides wasted little time in setting out their attacking intent. The Chiefs had the first opportunity on three minutes when Ian Whitten snapped up a loose home pass to release Ollie Devoto, but as he looked to scissor pass off Short, the latter fumbled and the scoring chance was lost.
The Cherry & Whites duly made the most of the let-off, breaking the deadlock just moments later with their first meaningful attack of the afternoon. Initially raiding down the right, the hosts worked the ball back in field, across their back division to Jonny May, who in turn fed Ludlow to glide over for the opening try, which was converted by Scottish international Laidlaw.
Given the perfect fillip from Ludlow’s early touchdown, Gloucester threatened again moments later when Clarke broke down the right flank. As he looked to pass inside to Twelvetrees, however, the home side knocked on and the Chiefs were able to clear the danger.
Having survived the threat, the Chiefs cantered down field once more, fashioning a decent attacking platform that got them deep inside enemy territory. Although Gloucester did well to repel the Exeter raids initially, they strayed offside in midfield allowing Steenson to open his account for the afternoon with a penalty from 30 metres out.
Laidlaw immediately cancelled that three-pointer out as Luke Cowan-Dickie was pulled up for not releasing at the tackle, only for Steenson to repeat his earlier effort when he slotted his second successful penalty of the contest when referee Ian Tempest pinged the home side for the same offence.
Slowly, but surely, the Chiefs were beginning to find their rhythm and following some hard yards gleaned by Olly Woodburn and Ollie Devoto, they fashioned a third penalty when home hooker Richard Hibbard was adjudged to have entered the ruck illegally. Steenson again opted for the posts, but this time the normally lethal Exeter marksman pulled his kick wide of the mark, much to the delight of many inside KIngsholm.
If that was disappointing, so too was what followed as – not for the first time this season – the interception hoodoo struck the Chiefs again. Pressing hard on halfway, this time it was Steenson’s pass that was picked off by England flyer May, who was given the freedom of Kingsholm to race unopposed to the line. Laidlaw was this time unable to convert from wide on the left flank.
Undeterred, Baxter’s side looked to fashion a rapid response and having won a scrum penalty midway inside the home half, they opted for the corner, rather than a shot at goal. The subsequent line-out drive started well enough, but Gloucester regrouped well to smother the Exeter drive, eventually winning a crucial turnover that allowed them to clear down field.
In their next attack, however, the Chiefs did find the magic formula, claiming their opening try of the game through Whitten. The Irishman cut a lovely line off Steenson’s cut back pass to burst through the heart of the home defence and under the sticks for the converted score.
But no sooner had the Chiefs given themselves a lifeline back into the contest, they came within a whisker of leaking a second intercept score. Thankfully, Whitten – who had seen his pass plucked out of the air by Sharples – was close enough to tap-tackle the home winger as he looked set to race clear of the visiting cover.
It proved the last meaningful action of the half as the Chiefs happily saw out the dying embers to go in at the turn just two points adrift of their hosts. Events up the road in Coventry were still some 15 minutes behind following a delayed kick-off at the Ricoh Arena.
HALF TIME GLOUCESTER 15 EXETER CHIEFS 13
With little to choose between the sides following a ferocious first 40 minutes, it was Gloucester who were quickest to show on the resumption. The home side laid siege on the Chiefs, setting themselves up deep inside the visiting 22 with a sustained period of pressure.
The Chiefs, though, were up to the task, placing their bodies on the line with some excellent first-up tackling. Then, when Gloucester did find space out wide on the left for May, he was denied a second try when referee Tempest picked up a knock-on in the build-up.
Having survived the home pressure, the Chiefs then hit their rivals with a devastating one-two that Anthony Joshua would have been proud of. Using their heavyweight forwards to punch significant holes into the Gloucester rearguard, so the holes started to appear in the home line.
A succession of drives got Baxter’s men to within touching distance of the line, the fruits of which eventually saw Townsend pop a pass to his left and there was Moon to bulldoze his way over for his first-ever try in English rugby’s top flight.
Steenson slotted the testing touchline conversion to that and Exeter’s third try which arrived just minutes later, Short the beneficiary on this occasion as he was able to glide his way over in virtually the same spot.
Whereas it had been the Chiefs playing catch-up for most of the contest, now it was Gloucester who were having to dig deep to find a response of sorts.
Crucially, there was still life left in the Cherry and Whites and with a counter raid of their own, they drove hard at the Exeter defence, forging time and space for May to collect wide on the left, before he side-stepped his way around Nowell to score in the left corner.
The score ignited the vociferous Shed – which had been infiltrated by many of the Travelling Tribe – but home cheers proved short-lived as back roared the visitors to claim a fourth and crucial bonus point score.
Not for the first time this term, the forwards did the donkey work, producing a simple, yet highly effective pick-and-go game, that got them to within inches of the home line. Gloucester did all they could to thwart the danger, but in the end the Exeter wave turned into a tsunami, and over stole replacement Chudley for a decisive score by the posts, which Steenson was able to convert.
Again, Gloucester did their best to stay in touch, but a late chance saw a potential try in the right corner chalked off by the TMO following some detailed analysis on review.
The final few minutes resembled more of a sevens contest rather than that of the 15-man game as both sides threw caution to the wind in pursuit of further reward. However, the job was done as far as Baxter and his side were concerned, a home semi-final now awaits in two weeks’ time.
Gloucester: J Hook; C Sharples (O Thorley 56), M Scott (H Trinder 66), M Atkinson, J May; B Twelvetrees, G Laidlaw (capt, W Heinz 62); P McAllister (Y Thomas 53), R Hibbard (D Dawiduik 72), J Afoa (J Hohneck 66); T Savage (J Thrush 69), M Galarza; F Clarke, L Ludlow, B Morgan.
Tries – Ludlow, May (2); Conversion – Laidlaw; Penalty – Laidlaw
Chiefs: J Nowell; O Woodburn (S Hill 66), I Whitten, O Devoto, J Short; G Steenson (capt), S Townsend (W Chudley 58); B Moon (C Rimmer 58), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 58), H Williams (T Francis 58); O Atkins (S Skinner 74), G Parling; D Dennis, J Salvi (S Simmonds 23), K Horstmann. Replacement (not used): S Skinner.
Tries – Whitten, Moon, Short, Chudley; Conversions – Steenson (4); Penalties – Steenson (2)
Referee: I Tempest