Match summary – Exeter Chiefs 20-15 Bath Rugby
Bath Rugby had to settle for a losing bonus point against Exeter Chiefs but it could have been a lot more.
Joe Cokanasiga and Dave Ewers traded scores in the first quarter before Henry Slade’s try and Joe Simmonds’ boot put Exeter 20-10 up at half-time.
The brilliant Niall Annett, who had to play almost the whole game due to an injury to Tom Dunn, crossed just past the hour to bring Bath to within five.
All the play was with Bath in remaining 15 and although opportunities were there, Chiefs stood firm to earn the win.
Josh Bayliss made his 100th Bath Rugby appearance while Lewis Boyce earned the 50-cap milestone.
Sam Underhill returned to the side for the first time this season while Academy prop Archie Griffin was set for his Gallagher Premiership debut.
Exeter selected a 23 rich with international experience. Jack Nowell, Slade and Scott Sio were named in a near-400 capped matchday squad. Hooker Jack Yeandle was also making his 200th Premiership appearance.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Josh Hodge, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Solomone Kata, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Sam Maunder; 1 Scott Sio, 2 Jack Yeandle (c), 3 Harry Williams, 4 Dafydd Jenkins, 5 Jonny Gray, 6 David Ewers, 7 Chris Tshiunza, 8 Sam Simmonds
Replacements: 16 Dan Frost, 17 Josh Iosefa-Scott, 18 Patrick Schickerling, 19 Jack Dunne, 20 Santiago Grondona, 21 Tom Cairns, 22 Tom Hendrickson, 23 Stuart Hogg
Bath Rugby: 15 Matt Gallagher, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Cameron Redpath, 11 Ruaridh McConnochie, 10 Orlando Bailey, 9 Louis Schreuder; 1 Lewis Boyce, 2 Tom Dunn ©, 3 D’Arcy Rae, 4 Will Spencer, 5 Fergus Lee-Warner, 6 Ted Hill, 7 Sam Underhill, 8 Josh Bayliss
Impact players: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Valeriy Morozov, 18 Archie Griffin, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Tom Ellis, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Max Ojomoh, 23 Miles Reid
Within 30 seconds of Exeter kicking off, Ewers’ jackal work presented Joe Simmonds with an easy three points from the tee to get the scoreboard going for the Chiefs.
Both scrum-halves began to test the opposition’s back three with perfectly weighted box kicks early with Matt Gallagher and Josh Hodge having to marshal the airwaves well.
Chiefs made smart choices to gain an in-road into the Bath 22 inside the first 10 minutes, but they became unstuck through Ollie Lawrence and Ted Hill tackles plus a superb penalty turnover from Ruaridh McConnochie.
From there, the Blue, Black and White marched downfield. Schreuder’s sneaky dummy saw him get in behind and when a number of bodies went close, the South African’s looping ball to the left was quickly tapped inside by Cameron Redpath for Cokanasiga to touch down.
Bailey’s touchline conversion made it 7-3 to the visitors but not for long as Exeter hit straight back to regain their lead. Despite Bath defending admirably in close quarters, Ewers piled over from three yards.
The game was levelled at 10-10 when Bailey struck a penalty on 22 minutes and Lawrence went desperately close to adding to the visitors’ tally, but Schreuder’s deft chip bounced back over the centre’s head before being collected by Chiefs.
Exeter are renowned for their mauling expertise and when Yeandle threw in from 10 yards, the home crowd sensed something may happen. Centurion Bayliss had other ideas as he wrapped up man and ball to prevent a roll moving.
However, Rob Baxter’s men earned a bit of luck moments later. Slade did well to charge down a clearance kick and received an early Christmas present by collecting the ball to score after it deflected off an unaware Will Spencer.
Bath had one more opportunity to close the half on a high when Gallagher hacked on a loose ball, regathering in Exeter territory, but Joe Simmonds managed to get back secure a massive turnover on the deck.
And it was the fly-half who ended the first 40 by kicking a simple three points to give the home side a 10-point advantage at the interval.
Bath tested Hodge again with a few bombs early in the second period and Cokanasiga used his weight to hit back the full-back. He was unfazed by the contact and aided Chiefs’ move up-field which saw Underhill at his devasting best, winning a breakdown penalty.
The flanker’s eyes lit up in attack too as he was released by Annett following an Exeter mistake, though he put too much on his attempted grubber which kissed the turf on its way over the dead ball line.
At a crucial juncture in the match, Valeriy Morozov provided Bath a momentum swing at scrum time with Bayliss and Hill proving ferocious in defence. The maul was good too and when a penalty came from a 25-metre march, Gallagher put the ball on the five and with extra weight in numbers coming from the backs, another maul saw Annett dive over.
Exeter kicked the restart out on the full and Bath had turned the screw, putting the hosts under extreme pressure in all facets of the game.
With the benches emptied, including Griffin’s Premiership debut, it was all or nothing for the Blue, Black and White with 10 minutes remaining.
A McConnochie punt deep to the left wing was picked up by Stuart Hogg and the Scotland international was hounded first by Max Ojomoh and then by Lawrence who won an all-important penalty. A maul opportunity was to come but unfortunately for Bath, they broke away and conceded a penalty where Exeter could clear their lines.
Ojomoh and Lawrence combined well in the midfield with not much time left on the clock though the greasy conditions meant Olly Woodburn’s last-ditch tackle forced a knock on in the Exeter 22.
With the clock ticking down towards the red, there was one last chance for a famous victory at Sandy Park. Pick and gos saw Johann van Graan’s team see their to within inches of stealing the result, but referee Tom Foley spotted an infringement to penalise Bath and Chiefs hoofed the ball off the field to end the game.