Like some cross-grained West Country terrier, Exeter keep yapping at the heels of the Aviva Premiership leaders. Yesterday their bite was as big as their bark as they chewed off the biggest win of their Premiership existence with a performance based on the simple ingredients that have made them such a force over the last two seasons.
They did so despite losing two players to the sin-bin and against a Sale side who have been playing good rugby over the Six Nations period. But not until they were 30 points adrift did Sale produce anything like continuity and, though it brought two tries, they suffered the final indignity of conceding a penalty try under their own posts against 14 men.
Exeter felt they were given insufficient credit for November's win at Sale, when they turned around a 17-point half-time deficit, and that they had been unfairly criticised for scoring one try in three games.
"Some of that was the weather, today was dry and we freed the players up, told them not to be weighed down by the league," said Rob Baxter, the head coach.
Exeter took only their second try-scoring bonus point of the season, four of the five tries coming before Sale had a point. For almost the whole of the first half, the visitors were anonymous, the only curiosity the penalties they received at the scrum, where Exeter seemed in the ascendant.
Haydn Thomas and Ignacio Mieres, the Chiefs' half-backs, kept Sale guessing and allowed their outstanding flankers, Tom Johnson and James Scaysbrook, to fan out in constant support. But it was Richard Baxter, the No 8, whose break led to the first try, Jason Shoemark sending Phil Dollman over in the corner. Baxter scored the second try after Exeter kept Sale scoreless during their one period of first-half pressure.
Six minutes after the interval, Matt Jess came off the blind-side wing to put Nic Sestaret through and over the line.
Baxter was the first player to receive a yellow card, as Sale's phase play finally carried them to the line. Awarded a five-metre scrum, they offended – Bryan Rennie made a 70-metre break and, while still down to 14 men, Exeter worked Jess over the line.
Sale flickered into life. "We trained the best we have trained during the week and that's sometimes a signal to be careful," said Tony Hanks, their head coach.
Luther Burrell scored their first try and with the Exeter replacement flanker Ben White in the bin, Tony Buckley touched down a ball Exeter thought they had under control. Exeter would not be denied. Three times they went for a five-metre scrum, twice Sale were penalised. The third time the penalty try came. Before yesterday, Exeter had scored only 20 Premiership tries this season; after scoring five more, their economy is booming.
Exeter Chiefs P Dollman; G Camacho, B Rennie, J Shoemark (N Sestaret, 40), M Jess; I Mieres (G Steenson, 61), H Thomas (K Barrett, 50); H Tui (C Budgen, 74), C Whitehead (N Clark, 66), C Mitchell (B Moon, 55), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (A Muldowney, 55), T Johnson (B White, 66), R Baxter, J Scaysbrook.
Sale Sharks R Miller; T Brady, J Leota (L Burrell, 57), S Tuitupou (capt), M Cueto (J Tuculet, 66); N Macleod, D Peel (C Willis, 57); A Sheridan (R Harrison, 61), M Jones (J Ward, 55), V Cobilas (A Buckley, 55), K Myall, J Gaskell, R Vernon (M Easter, 50), A Powell, D Seymour (W Lewaravu, 66).
Referee D Richards (London).
Tries: Dollman, Baxter, Sestaret, Jess, Penalty try
Cons: Mieres 2, Steenson
Pens: Mieres 2
Tries: Burrell, Buckley