Chiefs bulldoze their way through Bristol barrier to clamber back to the summit
If the Premiership season is a marathon, this is the part of the race where Exeter have hit the wall. Devoid of inspiration and their usual clinical edge, the Chiefs ground out the ugliest of victories over an obdurate Bristol side to restore their position atop the league.
Bristol led for large chunks through the boot of fly-half Ian Madigan but tries from Santiago Cordero, on the stroke of half-time, and Sean Lonsdale were enough to enable Exeter to leapfrog Saracens at the summit.
This was a contest ruined by 24 spirit-sapping scrums, the majority of which were reset, draining the soul of the game. The blame must be shared. With the backs for the proliferation of knock-ons, with both front rows for going to ground so easily on a dry if cold day and with referee Craig MaxwellKeys for a lack of decisiveness.
Exeter can move on to their Champions Cup double-header, when they will need an improbable 10 points against Castres and Munster to progress.
“Any win in the Premiership is a good one,” said Rob Baxter, the Exeter director of rugby. “It is probably the thing our lads need to get their heads around, because a few too many of them have bought in to the notion that victories should kind of just come. They don’t. Bristol came here to win, so you have got to play well to beat them. Every win is precious and you have to work hard for it.”
The first-half “action” was contained almost exclusively to the final 90 seconds of play.
After kicking to the corner, Exeter opted to employ fast ball off the top of the line-out rather than engage their maul. Straightaway, they were up to the Bristol try-line. Time and time again, they surged up towards the whitewash only for a Bristol body to push them back or hold them up only to infringe for offside.
Exeter opted for the tap and more of the same. Bristol again kept them out until Exeter finally decided to give their frozen backs a go. Henry Slade’s peach of a pass gave Cordero the simplest of walk-ins. Gareth Steenson’s conversion sent Exeter in 7-3 ahead.
And that was really about it. Bristol took the lead through Madigan’s 13thminute penalty with an out-of-sorts Exeter unable to respond. They handled the ball like it had been coated in
Vaseline with a spate of knock-ons, a disease that also infected Bristol.
Never was that more costly than when the ball slipped through Ben Moon’s hands inches from the try-line after Matt Kvesic had broken a tackle.
At half-time, Pat Lam replaced his entire front row and almost immediately profited from the reshuffle with Bristol winning a penalty after getting the shove on at the scrum, which allowed Madigan to kick the visitors to within a point. Baxter responded by replacing his front row en masse.
Baxter’s mood would have further darkened as Exeter conceded another penalty in comical fashion, when Phil Dollman and Cordero collided without a Bristol player in the vicinity. Madigan kicked Bristol ahead from the offside decision.
With both Exeter half-backs also making way, the home side finally started to motor. After being awarded a penalty in front of the posts for an umpteenth Bristol offside, Exeter kicked to the corner, where their maul was illegally brought down.
Millimetre by millimetre, carry by carry, Exeter ground their way until Lonsdale was driven over in the righthand corner. Joe Simmonds, the replacement fly-half, nailed an excellent conversion from the touchline.
Bristol director of rugby Lam was furious Exeter’s maul tactics were not penalised by Maxwell-Keys: “There are things that they are doing illegally and
‘Too many have bought into the notion victories should just come. Every win is precious’
we highlighted to the referees with videos. The build-up to the second try was illegal.
“It is up to the referees to know the laws. The first try was also a crooked throw. It is nothing to do with Exeter. You get away with what you can, but it is a big area of their game.”
Breaking free: Santiago Cordero (left) escapes the Bristol defence to touch down for Exeter’s first try