George Ford is a civilised young man. He would not scream “pick me” at the England management but dropped, instead, another heavy hint here yesterday that if he is to prove of international calibre, he needs game time. Next Saturday’s climactic meeting of England and Ireland at Twickenham may not be the venue but the uncapped Ford must feature soon.
This was another understated display which confirmed Bath in third place in the Aviva Premiership table. Ford kicked 12 points but his provision for others makes the difference; he has the rare ability (for an Englishman) to see space for himself and colleagues, and the ability to pass accurately enough to make the most of it.
“All George can do is control his performance, keep playing well,” Toby Booth, the Bath coach, said. “If Stuart Lancaster picks him, in whatever capacity, that’s out of George’s control. Our job is to give him the platform, as with all our players, to be as good as he can be.”
This was a far better game than a sodden West Country had the right to expect. High winds snapped two Sandy Park goalposts overnight and damaged the pitch covering but both teams shrugged off the heavy surface and produced a vibrant contest. Bath, though, possessed the ability and the confidence derived from just one defeat in their last 19 matches to up the tempo in the second half.
They might have struggled had Exeter made more of the glut of territory and possession they enjoyed in the first half-hour. They disrupted Bath’s lineout, held the scrum (where David Wilson, England’s replacement prop, played his first half of rugby in two months after overcoming a torn calf muscle) but seldom occupied Bath’s 22 for any length of time.
With 13 minutes left, Exeter trailed by only a point but their hopes of achieving a first win over Bath since they were promoted four years ago died when Gavin Henson – remember him? – forced a turnover 10 metres from his own line, Bath went 70 metres upfield and the last act of the game was Ford’s angled penalty.
After an initial exchange of penalties between Ford and Gareth Steenson, Bath were fortunate that a crooked scrum feed by Micky Young went unpunished when they were penned in their own corner. But the try that gave the visitors the lead was beautifully conceived and executed; Ford’s little check gave Kyle Eastmond space and Ollie Devoto strode the final 40 metres.
Before the interval, Steenson kicked a second penalty and converted a try by Ben White after Exeter’s lineout drove a path to the line. A third Steenson penalty just after the break raised home hopes still further but the entry of Nick Abendanon from the bench proved decisive; Anthony Watson moved to the wing where he found more space and did much of the spadework before Young’s pass was picked off by Eastmond who juggled and scored.
Nine minutes later, Bath broke from deep, Abendanon chipped ahead and beat Haydn Thomas and Luke Arscott for the touchdown. Yet Exeter maintained possession and Ian Whitten threw a huge dummy to score a try, Steenson’s conversion reducing the gap to one – which was one more than the Chiefs could manage though they have confirmed the signing of Moray Low, the Glasgow and Scotland prop, for next season.
Exeter Chiefs: L Arscott (H Slade, 64); M Jess, I Whitten, P Dollman, T James; G Steenson, D Lewis (H Thomas, 62); B Moon, J Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie, 64), H Tui, D Mumm (captain), D Welch, T Johnson, B White (D Armand, 55), D Ewers (K Horstmann, 64).
Bath: A Watson; H Agulla, O Devoto (G Henson, 68), K Eastmond, M Banahan (N Abendanon, 51); G Ford, M Young (P Stringer, 54); P James (N Catt, 64), R Batty (E Guinazu, 68), D Wilson (A Perenise, 47), S Hooper (captain; D Day, 62), D Attwood, M Garvey, F Louw, L Houston (A Fa’osiliva, 64).
Referee: A Small (London)