The two Devonians aboard the stadium-bound shuttle bus were not exactly overflowing with confidence. "If we're to stand an earthly," said one, talking of Exeter's chances of surviving their first season in the Premiership, "we'll have to take every bonus point going." "Leicester next week? There'll be no bonus point up there," his colleague replied. "I think Leicester could get one," responded the first, grimly.
There was no arguing with any of this, but in the great scheme of things events at Welford Road in a few days' time will matter much less than they might have done. A visit to the champions seven days after a 40-point walloping at home would have tested the belief of a saint, but as there was no walloping of any description at Sandy Park at the weekend – quite the opposite, much to Gloucester's bewilderment – the newcomers can sleep sound in the knowledge that at least half a dozen teams will find life uncomfortable down there in the far South-west. And if those teams deal with their discomfort as amateurishly as Gloucester, anything is possible.
Bryan Redpath, the visitors' coach, was spitting feathers as Mike Tindall, his captain, gathered the defeated around him for a wee chat. "I hope he's giving them a piece of his mind," Redpath muttered, "because I've certainly given them a piece of mine." The Scot correctly identified James Simpson-Daniel and Eliota Fumaono-Sapolu as the two men who had delivered a performance even close to acceptable. The rest, he seemed to indicate, could go hang.
Lost in a forest of fumbles, foul-ups and forward passes – not to mention the abject inability of their goal- kicker, Nicky Robinson, to hit an elephant's bum with a banjo – Gloucester did everything in their power to play Exeter into the game and keep them there, not least at the line-out, which they chose not to contest on the grounds that this would prevent the home side reaping dividends from their driving maul.
In the event, that strategy presented Exeter with all the first-phase ball they could use. "It was," admitted the winning captain, Tom Hayes, "a little surprising."
Yet there was more to Exeter than mere opportunism in the face of tactical boneheadedness. The nerve-settling try they scored after four minutes was beautifully constructed – punch, punch, quick spin left – and they would have recorded a second had Matt Jess not spilt Gareth Steenson's diagonal punt five metres from the line.
Their ravenously hungry back-rowers gorged themselves silly on the unrestricted helpings of loose ball fed them by their opponents; they made their early tackles count, especially when the heavily built prop Hoani Tui found himself in range of the even more heavily built wing Lesley Vainikolo; and they kicked their goals. All of them. If Steenson ever misses, it is when he's practising after dark.
Only two capped players were named in the Exeter squad, both of them Samoans and both of them on the bench. Even when the full southern hemisphere contingent arrive in England – as they are, in dribs and drabs – international quality will be thin on the ground. But what the Devonians concede with one hand, they grab back with the other.
They are clearly well conditioned and cleverly coached. Why else would Tom Johnson, a 28-year-old flanker with a background in lower-tier rugby, find himself leaving the likes of Luke Narraway and Akapusi Qera for dead? What other explanation can there be for the fine performance of James Hanks, a second-row forward whose last representative honours were with England Students?
Rob Baxter, the man responsible for this outfit, is not one of life's natural wisecrackers, and he was suitably downbeat at the final whistle. "Yes, it was a fantastic occasion, and we'll enjoy it," he said. "But the danger is that we party tonight and find ourselves celebrating something we don't see again for a long while. There is still so much to do here, still so much up in the air.
"It wasn't a cup final out there, it was the first game in a long season. If anyone had suggested a lap of honour, I'd have chucked him in the dressing room myself."
He could not stop the crowd going ape, though. As the Exeter chant, known as the Tomahawk Chop, accompanied Gloucester from the field, one supporter was heard to shout: "Hey, you lot! Welcome to the West Country."
Exeter: Try Foster; Conversion Steenson; Penalties Steenson 4; Drop goal Steenson. Gloucester: Tries Simpson-Daniel, Taylor.
Exeter L Arscott; N Sestaret, P Dollman (M Jess, 46), B Rennie (Dollman, 56), M Foster; G Steenson, H Thomas (G Cowley, 81); B Sturgess (B Moon, 75), N Clark (S Alcott, 52), H Tui (C Budgen, 59), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (D Gannon, 74), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, J Phillips (C Slade, 52).
Gloucester O Morgan (T Taylor, 63); J Simpson-Daniel, M Tindall (capt, T Molenaar, 65), E Fuimaono-Sapolu, L Vainikolo; N Robinson, D Lewis (J Pasqualin, 69); N Wood (A Dickinson, 57), S Lawson (O Azam, 75), P Capdevielle, D Attwood, A Brown (W James, 75), P Buxton (A Strokosch, 49), A Qera, L Narraway.
Referee R Debney (Leicestershire).Reuse content