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Brave Chiefs fall to Bath magic

It was inevitable that this West Country derby would be a talking point this weekend, especially since the Exeter Chiefs hadn’t beaten Bath since 1978. 

So the question on everyone’s lips was, could they turn the tables on home turf at Sandy Park?   Nearly… but not quite!

Rob Baxter wanted a bright start for Exeter, and that’s what he got.   A dominant forwards pack saw a steady set scrum which made Bath uncomfortable and uneasy.  That wasn’t all.  Three scrums in seven minutes would be tough on any player, but Exeter were marking their territory and quite rightly so, showing Bath why it’s so hard to play at Sandy Park as the Tomahawk Chop resounded round the stands. 

From the outset the visitors looked passive in their set piece; somewhat disjointed and under confident.  Bath failed to win any line outs in the first-half and Exeter’s momentum and resilience saw them pounding and tiring the Bath defensive line.  

The Chiefs are renowned for playing a lethal, physical, attacking game and their ability within the forwards pack signaled their intent: But I must admit, when Bath did manage to handle the ball, it was Ford who proved why he should be in an England shirt.  

For example, an extremely well-timed pop to a quick-stepping Ollie Devoto, enabled him to angle his line of attack and rip through a poor Exeter defence from half way, to score a some-what soft try.

However, I felt for the Chiefs; their work rate so far had been consistently high, but irregularly spaced inside defenders will always provide the opposition with extremely fortuitous gaps.

Exeter’s patience and continuity however were proving positive and their passion clear to see. The Chiefs were awarded a penalty, just short of half time and fancying their chances, kicked for touch.

With two minutes to go, the forwards drove the maul, accompanied by the Tomahawk chop which roared around Sandy Park.   An outstanding effort from Dave Ewers gained them ground but it was Ben White who headed straight over the line, scoring a vital try!    

Right on the stroke of half time, Exeter’s hard work had paid off.  Could they keep up the momentum going into the second-half?   

It was Bath who showed glimpses of hope on the attack in the second half but poor phases of play and handling errors saw them fall short of the try line.   But Bath then started to clear their bench, with Anthony Perenise a change in the front row, Peter Stringer on at scrum-half, Nick Abendanon on for Matt Banahan and Anthony Watson moved to the wing.  Surely this would this help them find their feet and gain control of the game? 

Initially, Exeter’s defensive effort proved sound but Bath now upped their intensity and started to threaten as their phases of play became clinical and concise.  

It was only a matter of time before this focused effort would deliver a try and it was enthusiastic Kyle Eastmond, accepting a pass from Ford and breaking through Chief’s defensive line, who delivered the goods:  A really strong piece of continuity play by Bath.   It was definitely the first time they’d looked dominant and deadly on the attack. Emptying the bench had paid off.

Shortly followed by a show of brilliance when Nick Abendanon took a wide pass from Ford, belted down the wing, chipped the ball, chased it and then finished the display with flair and grounded the ball.   The Clermont-bound player flashed his ‘Class Act’ credentials and in the last quarter of the game, Bath were coming into their own. 

Nevertheless, Exeter exerted again and bounced back on the attack.   It was electric to watch as they played the ball safely though hands from one side of the pitch to the other at real pace.  

Bath couldn’t drift quick enough to cover their 22 and a gap was created out wide, handing a golden opportunity to Ian Whitten who broke through the passive or somewhat non-existent Bath defence to hear Sandy Park roar as he touched down.   Just wow!  The Chiefs were back in the game. Steenson converted.  

The question now was, could they carry on and break this losing spell?  Could Exeter close the one point gap?  They advanced on the Bath line but the ball was stolen metres from the end zone and Ford cleared the ball.   Abendanon galloped down the pitch for the chase and it was like ping pong;  attack to defence, all that was parting these two sides was discipline.  Suddenly, this game had rapidly rocketed in intensity, becoming too close to call! 

But finally, with a penalty awarded to Bath in the dying stages, Ford sealed the deal for the visitors.  It was so near – yet so far, for Exeter.  If they had kept their passes simple late on, would they have made history with a drop goal?  

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. They couldn’t afford to run the risk of losing possession and it proved very expensive, costing them the game. 

Exeter showed admirable strength of character but Bath pipped them at the posts, quite literally.  Overall, both teams were balanced in the scrum and even though line out possession was won hands down by Exeter in the first half, the second half was an uphill struggle. 

Quality and composure edged it for me, enabling Bath to steal the win.  Exeter lost control in the final stages of the game but if they re-evaluate and work hard, I’m in no doubt the Chiefs will be top four contenders in the Aviva Premiership. 

I look forward to reporting from Allianz Park next Sunday as Saracens host the Exeter Chiefs!

By Rhiannon Chandler-Day

@RhiannonCDay

To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her blog at: http://rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.uk and also have a look at her view on the weekend’s action here: Aviva Premiership roundup.

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