Chiefs bull­doze their way through Bris­tol bar­rier to clam­ber back to the sum­mit

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - Daniel Schofield at Sandy Park

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

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