Bath vs Exeter Chiefs match report: Scalding Bath heat up title chances

Bath 31 Exeter Chiefs 14: Eastmond and Watson too quick for Chiefs as Burgess plays support role

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The Independent Online

An announcer on BBC radio Saturday morning described this match as “Sam Burgess’s Bath against Exeter”, which would surely have embarrassed the large-limbed convert from rugby league still making his way in the union game.

Sure enough by the end of a bonus-point win, there were any number of other candidates deserving top billing.

Bath’s adventurous running was breathtaking on a pitch made damp by rain just before kick-off. A game- plan of risk and reward revolving around George Ford at fly-half permitted Exeter a converted try in each half, but it also showed off the speed and skill of Kyle Eastmond and Anthony Watson among the home backs. “We played very well in the first half, we just weren’t accurate enough,” said Mike Ford, George’s father and Bath’s head coach, “but our positivity was there for all to see. The league position doesn’t matter so much at the moment; the one thing we’re doing is getting better.”

Only Bath and Wasps have won all their home league matches this season, and that represents a significant improvement on recent years, as does second place in the table as they pull away from the pack with leaders Northampton.

Exeter’s run of eight wins in all competitions had ended at Sale last weekend, and another reverse on the road as the Premiership season reached its 11-match mid-point ought to be no great morale-shredder,  although they dropped a place by losing. In nine league meetings with Bath now, they have yet to win. The clubs have different histories and horizons, for all their recent proximity in the table. However hard Bath may or not be pushing at the limit of the salary cap, their squad strength is witheringly impressive, particularly with Francois Louw and Matt Garvey fit again. If they get to June without winning a trophy or at least reaching a final, it will be a shock.

Exeter went in front with a try in the 25th minute. Ford’s pass was fumbled by Dom Day, scooped up by Dean Mumm and run in from halfway by left-wing Matt Jess. With Gareth Steenson, the Premiership’s top scorer, resuming his phenomenal kicking form it was 7-0.

Exeter were using one pass when Bath preferred three or four but the home team were too confident and self-assured to change tack. Continuing their colourful patterns they created two tries and a 14-7 lead by half-time.

Luck was with them for the first. When Leroy Houston juggled a pass from Ford, it had the effect of steering Eastmond on a different line – to go outside, not in – and simultaneously flummoxed Exeter briefly. Horacio Agulla, on the wing for Bath, adjusted in turn and the Argentinian knifed inside to leave Will Chudley clutching thin air, and Ford converted. That was followed by a Bath line-out overthrown on halfway, but possession soon came back to them at one of the rare breakdowns that did not end in a penalty. The heavy mob carried up to the 22-metre line, Ford arrived with a sashay left to right, and a sweetly dummied pass set up a ruck from where the scrum-half Chris Cook sniped and Eastmond finished, with a conversion by Ford.

By the way, Cook may not grab headlines, but do not overlook his bright mind in the Bath machine.

Four minutes into the second half Bath erred again. Ford got his angles wrong and passed into Steenson’s back. Sam Hill gathered and chipped, not particularly accurately but as Agulla dithered he was beaten to the ball at the corner flag by Jack Nowell for a poaching score. Steenson converted to level the scores.

The penalty count was markedly against Exeter, however, and once they fell behind they had no answer. On 51 minutes Jack Yeandle’s line-out throw to Mitch Lees was picked off by home captain Stuart Hooper. With Exeter’s defence not set, and Garvey and Henry Thomas providing a  vanguard that would split an iceberg, Bath rumbled 15 metres to the line with Dave Attwood, the England lock not long on as a replacement, getting the try. Ford converted.

It took Bath a while to nab the bonus point. Ford kicked a penalty for 24-14. Burgess trotted on in the last quarter, in the centres as has been the norm for his five first-team appearances, as opposed to his try-scoring dalliance in the back row for Bath’s A team last Monday. He looked like Gulliver galumphing alongside the Lilliputian figures of Ford and Eastmond. Yet Burgess’ sheer presence and footballing sense means taking part in the 2015 World Cup cannot be considered complete bunkum.

Eventually, after a series of attacking line-outs and scrums came and went, Ford’s long miss-pass found Anthony Watson in clear water. Bath’s job was done with Ford’s concluding conversion.

Line-ups:

Bath: A Watson; H Agulla, J Joseph (S Burgess 63), K Eastmond, M Banahan; G Ford (O Devoto 78), C Cook (M Young 65); N Auterac (P James 41), R Webber (R Batty 49), H Thomas (D Wilson 67), S Hooper (capt), D Day (D Attwood 49), M Garvey, F Louw, L Houston (C Fearns 65).

Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman; J Nowell, H Slade, S Hill, M Jess (K Horstmann 72); G Steenson (I Whitten 74), W Chudley (H Thomas 8-14, 58); B Moon (C Rimmer 54), J Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie 54), M Low (T Francis 55), D Mumm (capt), D Welch (M Lees 14), D Ewers, D Armand, T Waldrom.

Referee: JP Doyle (London).

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