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Exeter Chiefs 15
Mark Stevens at the Twickenham Stoop
It may have been Bonfire Night, but Exeter Chiefs hopes of kicking off this season’s Anglo-Welsh Cup campaign with a bang failed to materialise as Harlequins provided the sparkle in the nation’s capital.
The home side proved too strong for the visiting Chiefs, running in three tries through Aaron Morris, Charlie Walker and Luc Jones, while Nick Evans slotted 14 points with his tried and trusted right boot.
Exeter had their moments as they claimed tries through James Short and Elvis Taione, plus five points from young fly-half Joe Simmonds, but they were the only real bright spots on a difficult night for Devon’s finest.
Injuries to Will Hooley and Phil Dollman only added to the visiting woes, the former having been sent to hospital for a check-up following a bone-crunching hit early in the match from Mat Luamanu.
With Premiership and European matters put to one side, the return of the Anglo-Welsh Cup meant the visitors were able to rotate their options, both on and off the field. Skills coach Pellow headed up a Chiefs side which showed 14 changes to that which started against Bath the week previous.
The sole survivor was Short, but he was joined in the starting XV by the returning Dollman and Dave Ewers, the latter of whom was making his first appearance of the season after picking up a serious knee injury during the pre-season win over Ulster.
After impressive cameo appearances off the bench in recent weeks, young scrum-half Jack Maunder was handed his first senior start as was Shaun Malton, who was joined in the front-row by experienced props Ben Moon and Greg Holmes.
Harlequins, meanwhile, also paraded a powerful line-up, spearheaded by former All Blacks fly-half Evans, who gave his side an early lead when he landed a seventh minute penalty after Ben White had been singled out for infringing at a ruck midway inside his own half.
A minute later, though, the home side were reduced to 14 men when No.8 Luamanu was shown yellow for an crude late hit on Will Hooley as he looked to offload a pass. Pole-axed on the floor, Hooley eventually came round, but his night was over and he was soon replaced by Simmonds.
With the man advantage, the Chiefs looked to attack straight away and they thought they had claimed the game’s opening try when Jonny Hill appeared to be propelled over the line with the helping hand of his fellow forwards. Welsh referee Craig Evans was undecided, so opted for a check with the TV match official who could not see the ball grounded.
Harlequins made the most of the let-off and with their next significant attack they extended their lead when Charlie Walker scythed through the heart of the Exeter backline, before shipping a simple offload to full-back Morris, who was able to glide over for the unconverted score.
Home cheers proved short-lived as the Chiefs responded in an instance, claiming their opening try of the night with a fine finish from Short. The winger was on hand to finish off a slick handling move from the visitors, showing fancy footwork down the left touchline to escape the clutches of at least two home defenders.
It was just what the doctor ordered for the Devonians, but they could not build on their bright spot despite some battling first half efforts.
On numerous occasions they got themselves to within strike range through strong running from Messrs Devoto, Johnson and Bodilly, but each time they could not land the decisive blow despite some heavy pressure.
Harlequins lapped up the Exeter attacking waves before stinging the visitors with a second successful Evans penalty to make it 11-5.
It could have been worse for the Chiefs just before the break when the Londoners were awarded another shot at the target, but this time James Lang pulled his long-range kick wide of the left post.
HALF TIME HARLEQUINS 11 EXETER CHIEFS 5
The second half began with Harlequins very much on the offensive, two early penalty chances to the corner saw them set up camp deep inside the Exeter 22, but after numerous raids it was prop Mark Lambert who knocked on for the hosts with the try-line beckoning.
From the resultant scrum, Harlequins pressed again – winning a penalty after Greg Holmes was adjudged to have lost his footing – and up stepped Evans to extend their lead to nine points.
The Chiefs needed a rapid response and this they did, pulling back three points immediately through the boot of Simmonds, who was able to punish the home side for offside at the kick-off.
Moments later and the Chiefs were in front for the first time, Simmonds this time converting Exeter’s second try of the game, which came courtesy of Tongan international Taione, who had only been on the pitch a matter of minutes before he was being driven over from a well-drilled line-out move.
With little to choose between either side, Lang saw a second long-range penalty chance slip wide of the mark, before the Chiefs were reduced to 14 men temporarily with the sin-binning of Taione for killing the ball in front of his own posts. His indiscretion not only cost him a ten minute spell in the cooler, but also allowed Evans to put his side back in front 17-15 with his fourth penalty of the contest.
Whereas the Chiefs were unable to capitalise in the first half when Luamanu was sidelined, Harlequins showed how it should be done, fashioning the opening for winger Walker to latch onto an inside pass from the experienced Evans to race over for the home side’s second try.
Although Evans failed to convert that score, the experienced No.10 made no mistake when he was afforded the chance with the home side’s third try, which came seven minutes from time when Luc Jones was able to race in under the sticks.
The Chiefs did their best to rescue something from the evening in the closing stages, but although they huffed and puffed with a succession of charges, it was not to be as their hopes faded into the dark night sky.
Harlequins: A Morris; C Walker, J Marchant (L Jones 44), J Lang, Alofa Alofa (R Chisholm 2, R Jackson h/t); N Evans, C Mulchrone; M Lambert (O Evans 76), J Gray (C Piper 76), W Collier (A Jones 76); C Matthews, S South (M Reddish 36); J Chisholm (G Naoupu 76), D Ward (capt), M Luamanu.
Tries – Morris, Walker, L Jones; Conversion – Evans; Penalties – Evans (4)
Yellow Card: Luamanu
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman (H Strong 31); M Bodilly, O Devoto, S Hill (S Townsend 73), J Short; W Hooley (J Simmonds 8), J Maunder (capt); B Moon (B Keast 73), S Malton (E Taione 50), G Holmes (M Low 59); O Atkins (D Welch 53), J Hill; D Ewers (S Malton 65-72), B White (T Lawday 64), T Johnson.
Tries – Short, Taione; Conversion – Simmonds; Penalty – Simmonds
Yellow Card: Taione
Referee: C Evans (WRU)