Exeter Chiefs scored a last gasp try to deny Bath Rugby victory in the last Aviva Premiership game of 2016 at the Recreation Ground, with Rob Baxter’s side winning 17-11.
It was a positive start from the home side with Dave Attwood dispossessing the Chiefs in midfield to create the first opening, sending Zach Mercer bursting into the opposition 22 after just two minutes.
Impressive defensive work from the Blue, Black and White kept the Chiefs at bay, with the game scoreless until the reliable boot of George Ford put Bath in front (with a little help from the upright) after 23 minutes. 3-0.
The game really got going midway through the first-half, with Semesa Rokoduguni coming within inches of one of the tries of the season. The architect of much of Bath’s attacking moves in the opening period, the winger latched on to his own chip through the gap, collecting beyond halfway before powering his way into the Chiefs’ 22. Only a back-peddling Jack Nowell prevented the flying Rokoduguni on this occasion, but it was only a matter of time before he was again causing problems in attacking territory.
The resulting scrum saw the visiting side concede a penalty with Ford maintaining his 100% record to make it two out of two from the boot after 27 minutes. 6-0.
Six minutes later and Rokoduguni was creating havoc once again, starting and finishing a move that saw Bath score the first try of the afternoon. The England international broke the tackle of several Exeter players before releasing the ball, turning defence into attack in one swooping move. His fellow winger Brew offloaded to the oncoming Matt Garvey, who was held up just short of the line.
However, the play was not dead, as the ball was quickly recycled to the other side of the field with the industrial Ben Tapuai sending a looping pass to Rokoduguni, who somehow managed to evade the tackles of Phil Dollman and Olly Woodburn to touch down in spectacular fashion in the corner. 11-0.
Bath closed out the half soaking up Exeter possession with some courageous defence to ensure that the away side remained at bay.
Half-time score: Bath Rugby 11-0 Exeter Chiefs
The second-half started in similar vein with Bath remaining resolute in defence, with Ford coming closest to extending the advantage with a drop goal attempt that fell short of the posts after 47 minutes.
There was a big ovation from the crowd when Anthony Watson returned to the action for the first time since October, replacing Aled Brew on the wing with half an hour to play. It was nearly the perfect return for Watson, who went storming for the line after some quick hands from centre Jonathan Joseph, but Dollman and Nowell doubled up in defence to bundle the England international into touch just a metre from the line. 11-3.
With eight minutes to play, the game started to turn in the favour of the Chiefs, with the away team capitalising on Bath being down to 14 men - three props had left the field due to injury, and so the game was forced into uncontested scrums and the home side had to sacrifice a man.
It was Luke Cowan-Dickie who found his way through the resilient Bath defence managing to keep hold of the ball to release fellow replacement James Short to dive over in the corner and give the Chiefs hope of clawing back the deficit. Steenson slotted a kick from the touchline to take the game to within a point. 11-10.
With four minutes left on the clock, Short crossed for his second try after some good work in the build-up from Nowell. The England winger evaded three tackles before Tom Homer grounded him with what was in itself a try-saving tackle. However, it was heartbreak for the sell-out crowd as the ball was passed to the waiting Short, who put the Chiefs into the lead for the first time in the game. 11-17.
The Chiefs closed out the remaining minutes before clearing the ball into touch to move above Bath in the Aviva Premiership table.
Final score: Bath Rugby 11-17 Exeter Chiefs