This was anything but business as usual. Yesterday was supposed to be the day when Leicester buffed off their champions' crown but the Exeter Chiefs had not read the script.
But for a stream of penalties and the accuracy of Jeremy Staunton's boot, Exeter could have produced the upset to end all upsets since league rugby began in England, 24 years ago. Never before have the promoted team threatened to claim such a scalp but with Phil Dollman scoring two first-half tries, Exeter came within 11 minutes of doing so.
That they conceded a bonus-point try in the last minute and lost their own losing bonus point was the roughest of justice. The Chiefs came with a simple plan, to perform the basics and confront Leicester physically. How well they succeeded.
The aging process overtakes everyone eventually; the crueller types around Leicester have been reminding Richard Cockerill that he once coached Rob Baxter, who is now the Chiefs coach. Cockerill, Leicester's head coach, was captain the last time the two clubs met, in the Powergen Cup nine years ago, though neither he nor Baxter had been born on the occasion of Exeter's last win over the Tigers, on a 1966 Easter tour made by the Midlands club.
Cockerill would not have been remotely amused by his team's start here. Two penalties conceded, the second kicked by Gareth Steenson to give Exeter the lead, and a lineout lost – the phase in which Leicester suffered at Northampton on the first weekend.
The champions had to improve and they did, aided by the dismissal to the sin-bin of James Hanks for a blatant offside deep in the Exeter 22. After a five-metre scrum, two long passes gave Geordan Murphy an easy try. But the Chiefs, urged on by a noisy travelling support, are made of stern stuff and even sterner physique. They stand on ceremony for no one and they run hard and straight, as Gloucester found to their cost last weekend. More to the point, Exeter dictated the pace and rhythm of the game.
When Craig Newby fell offside in front of his own posts, Steenson cut the deficit. The return of Hanks saw Exeter recover the lead. They did so through doing the basics well and Dollman was the beneficiary: first the centre doubled round to take an inside ball and sprint clear, then he supported Luke Arscott's break behind a scrum for a second try.
Leicester do not expect to be treated as doormats on their own hearth but a 10-point gap at the interval suggested that this was the case. Second best at the line-out and the breakdown, their only comfort came at the scrum and from Exeter's tendency to concede penalties in the tackle.
The appearance of two internationals, Tom Croft and Marcos Ayerza, signalled Leicester's concern. Staunton had kicked his second penalty on the stroke of half-time, but they were relieved to see Steenson then miss the first kick of his Premiership career, from 43 metres.
Leicester could find no fluency against Exeter's blitz defence but Croft tightened the line-out and Exeter could do little about the scrum. Staunton kicked two more penalties but Exeter shrugged their broad shoulders and carried on.
Murphy was turned over on his own 22 and the ball went right and then left, where Mark Foster sold a delightful dummy for Exeter's third try. Even when Leicester forced a close-range line-out, they lost their own throw and it took a piece of skill by Ben Youngs to restore a semblance of normality. The scrum-half's break was sustained by Dan Hipkiss and Scott Hamilton was able to escape for his side's second try. He was followed to the line by Hipkiss, after a break by Croft, as Leicester took back the lead. For the first time, the Chiefs looked tired.
In the final minute. Leicester took a penalty scrum five metres out and Exeter's tight forwards gave ground until Dean Richards, the referee, awarded the penalty try. Leicester took what was hardly their due.
Leicester Tigers: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, D Hipkiss, A Allen (B Twelvetrees, 18; M Tuilagi, 75), A Tuilagi; J Staunton, B Youngs; B Stankovich (M Ayerza, 41), G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 49), C Green (T Croft, 41), G Skivington, C Newby (E Slater, 65), T Waldrom, B Woods.
Exeter Chiefs: L Arscott; N Sestaret, P Dollman, B Rennie (M Jess, 67), M Foster; G Steenson, H Thomas; B Sturgess (B Moon, 57), N Clark (S Alcott, 54), H Tui (C Budgen, 16), T Hayes, J Hanks (sin bin 10-22), T Johnson (C Slade, 51), J Phillips (D Gannon, 63), J Scaysbrook.
Referee: D Richards (Gloucestershire).Reuse content