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Exeter Chiefs 7
Bordeaux Begles 13
By Mark Stevens
Although not quite floored, Exeter Chiefs were dealt another hefty blow as Bordeaux Begles condemned them to a third successive loss in this season’s European Champions Cup at Sandy Park.
Like a prized fighter, the visiting Frenchmen withstood a heavy first half battering from Rob Baxter’s side before countering to deadly effect in the second period.
Jack Maunder’s maiden Exeter try, converted by skipper Gareth Steenson, helped to give the Chiefs a 7-3 lead at the break.
However, the Aviva Premiership side could not add to their tally after the break as Baptiste Serin followed up his first half penalty by claiming Bordeaux’s only try on the day.
His converted effort, plus a late penalty from replacement Lionel Beauxis, sealed a vital victory for the visitors, who will be hoping to repeat the feat when the two sides meet again this coming weekend at the Stade Chaban Delmas.
Fresh from three successive Premiership victories, the Chiefs returned to European action knowing nothing less than a maximum haul would do to keep their Champions Cup aspirations alive for another week at least.
Facing familiar foes in Bordeaux – the two sides met twice last season in the same competition with honours even – Baxter named a powerful starting XV for the visit of the French outfit.
Up front, Ben Moon, Tomas Francis, Jonny Hill, Dave Ewers and Dave Dennis were all recalled, whilst behind highly-rated young guns Jack Maunder, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell were also included in front of watching England head coach Eddie Jones.
Bordeaux, meanwhile, were looking to build on a promising start to their European campaign, one which had seen them push French counterparts Clermont Auvergne hard in the last round, having earlier seen off Ulster at home in the opening fixture of Pool 5.
In a tight opening to the contest, one in which both sets of forwards looked to wrestle the early dominance, it was the Chiefs who fashioned the first real attacking opportunity.
Aussie international Lachie Turner caused the initial havoc, returning a Serin kick with a sensational run that saw him cut a swathe through the heart of the Bordeaux midfield to get to within a few metres of the visiting line. As the cavalry arrived to assist Turner, the Exeter pack took on the charge, laying siege on the Bordeaux line with a succession of pick-and-go moves. But just as it looked as though the hosts were poised to strike, they were turned over on the line and the chance was lost.
At the other end, more good turnover work from the Frenchmen saw centre Romain Lonca strip the Chiefs off possession on halfway, he chipped over the advancing Steenson, but James Short was able to race across and cover the danger with relative ease.
With the scoreboard untouched during an industrious first quarter, it was the Chiefs who continued to look the more threatening. Turner again went close when he raced after a Slade chip in behind, but as he looked set to lap up the bouncing ball, the full-back knocked on and Bordeaux were again spared at the crucial moment.
Undeterred, the Chiefs continued to press forward in pursuit of points and just past the half-hour mark they were rewarded with the game’s opening try. Solid approach work from the forwards got them on the front foot, after which the backs took charge creating time and space for the impressive Devoto, who shook off two defenders before slipping a lovely pass back inside for Maunder to score.
It was a magical moment for the young scrum-half, son of former Exeter legend Andy Maunder, as he punched the air in delight to celebrate his maiden try in Exeter colours. Steenson converted to ensure a seven-point reward for the Chiefs.
The score was no more than Baxter’s side deserved, but they surrendered part of that advantage within minutes when Welsh international Francis was penalised for a high tackle in midfield, allowing French international Serin the chance to slot a simple penalty and cut the lead to just four points.
HALF TIME EXETER CHIEFS 7 BORDEAUX BEGLES 3
With the fog that had descended during the latter stages of the first half having cleared somewhat for the restart, so the Chiefs looked to build on their promising efforts of the first 40 minutes.
Again they set the early tone, setting up camp inside the Bordeaux half with some powerful phase play. Initially it failed to bring scant reward, but when it finally came out to Steenson, the Irishman looked set to pounce as he dropped his shoulder to pick a gap in the visiting rearguard. As he looked to scamper clear, a last-gasp Bordeaux tackler was on hand to not only thwart him, but was able to hit him hard enough that he spilt the ball in contact and the chance again went begging.
In such a tight contest, such opportunities need to be taken and Bordeaux made the most of the let-off to haul themselves back into the contest.
Having soaked up a long spell of home pressure, they then used their own forwards – who had been re-ignited by the introduction of five new faces in the second half – to make their own mark. Up front, they started to dominate at scrum time, winning not only a succession of penalties but, more crucially, a turnover deep inside the Exeter 22 that allowed them to steal in front.
Striking against the head, Bordeaux turned defence into attack in a split second, Tauleigne picking up from the base of a scrum to feed Serin, who was able to race in under the posts for the crucial score, which Madigan easily converted.
Now three points adrift, the Chiefs fell further behind when replacement fly-half Beauxis extended their lead with a second penalty, this after Nigel Owens had singled out home lock Jonny Hill for not rolling away at the tackle area.
The Chiefs refused to lie down and having settled themselves after a difficult passage of play, they thought they hauled themselves back into the match with a moment of magic from winger James Short. Having scored four tries in four previous matches, the former Saracens and London Irish star believed he has made it a perfect five from five, when he sped away from a host of Bordeaux defenders lurking around halfway.
Still with plenty to do, he accelerated at pace towards the line, but as he looked to dot down, the covering Tauleigne somehow did enough to get a grip of him just inches from the line. As Short eventually touched down, the officials were undecided and went to the TMO. Various replays ensued, aided by heavy dialogue between Owens and Tim Hayes, before the decision was to not award the score.
Sandy Park vented a huge sigh of disapproval, but it kind of summed up the night for Baxter’s side who offered plenty of promise in attack, but in the end sadly lacked the end product as a number of chances came and went.
Even then there was still time to fashion out one final throw of the dice. Michele Campagnaro’s brief outing off the bench saw the Italian international cause danger with one lightning quick break – and when the ball was worked through a series of phases, left then right, Turner was unable to find the onrushing Nowell with a final pass that could easily have put the Cornishman over for a score in the corner.
In the end, it signalled the likely conclusion to Exeter’s European qualification hopes for the season. However, they will head across the Channel this Saturday to renew rivalries with Bordeaux, after which a testing Premiership block sees them tackle Leicester Tigers, Bath and Saracens, before the final rounds of Europe embark once more.
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner; J Nowell, O Devoto (M Campagnaro 75), H Slade (S Hill 62), J Short; G Steenson (capt), J Maunder (W Chudley 54); B Moon (C Rimmer 54), J Yeandle (S Malton 75), T Francis (G Holmes 54); G Parling (O Atkins 43), J Hill; D Ewers, D Armand, D Dennis (K Horstmann 62).
Try – Maunder; Conversion – Steenson
Bordeaux-Begles: J-M Buttin; N Ducuing (J Vakacegu 66), R Lonca, J Rey, B Connor; I Madigan (L Beauxis 60), B Serin (capt, Y Lesgourgues 57); S Kitshoff (S Taofifenua 50), O Avei (C Maynadier 50), M Clerc (J-B Poux 50); T Palmer (L Jones h/t), B Botha; L Goujon, J Edwards (H Chalmers 50), M Tauleigne.
Try – Serin; Conversion – Madigan; Penalties – Serin, Beauxis
Referee: N Owens (Wal)