If you were a betting man you would not have put money midway through the second half on London Wasps travelling home with a consolation point. Two tries by Tom James, the former Wales wing, had helped Exeter to an 18-point advantage, and the hosts were cruising home.
But these are uncertain times for both clubs. Exeter have not started the Aviva Premiership with their usual élan and Wasps, missing such competitors as James Haskell and Tom Varndell, lack punch. Yet two tries in the final quarter suggest they do not lack character, at the same time denying Exeter the try bonus which seemed theirs for the taking.
The same problem evident in Wasps’ opening game a week earlier, against Harlequins, was apparent at Sandy Park: Wasps have few power runners among the forwards and the one they do have, Ashley Johnson, spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin around half-time for a high tackle on Haydn Thomas. Nor could their defence summon the stringency shown against their London rivals, and James was allowed to score his tries too easily.
Not that the wing, who moved from Cardiff Blues during the summer, will be complaining. James, still only 26, finished a first-half move which started with Gareth Steenson 60 metres away from the Wasps try-line; he worked harder for his second, stemming from a tapped penalty, and his quick feet opened up the defensive line before he sped 40 metres for the try.
“The more Tom settles in, the more he will do, we’ve only scratched the surface with him so far,” Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, said. “But we have more options now, the likes of Luke Arscott and Jack Nowell to come back, and though there’s been a bit of a spotlight on our England Under-20 players, we’ll use them when we, and they, are ready.”
Perhaps Exeter found it hard to recover their accustomed rhythm after the heavy defeat at Northampton on the opening weekend. They could not assert themselves at the set-piece, but when there was any fluid play at all, it came from the Chiefs, with Tom Johnson central to their continuity; his England hopes may have faded slightly, but he remains one of the more creative flankers in the Premiership.
It is creativity that concerns David Young, the Wasps director of rugby (who spent several years coaching James at Cardiff). Steve Jones, his backs coach, was frustrated that the players could not produce more variety, that the attack lacked depth and change of direction; it is possible that the Australian Ben Jacobs will help in that respect, though yesterday was the first game of the season for Chris Bell, the captain, and it will certainly help when Hugo Southwell is fit once more to play at full-back.
The first half was largely an exchange of penalties between Steenson and Andy Goode, but Exeter took a grip on the game shortly after the interval, when Phil Dollman kicked through for James, Christian Wade could not claim the ball and Thomas sent James Scaysbrook steaming over unopposed.
When James scored his second try 10 minutes later, Exeter’s foot left the gas: “It’s the challenge for us, when we get points ahead, to learn to turn the screw and finish teams off,” Baxter said afterwards.
Instead the Chiefs were penned in their own 22 and Jacobs, a replacement here, put Wade over by the posts to fan the flame of hope for Wasps. With two minutes remaining, Johnson was in possession at the back of a well-constructed line-out drive and Wasps, if not happy, claimed their losers’ bonus.
Exeter Chiefs: P Dollman; I Whitten, J Shoemark, S Hill (M Jess, 61), T James; G Steenson (H Slade, 69), H Thomas (D Lewis, 61); B Sturgess (B Moon, 59), J Yeandle (C Whitehead, 61), H Tui (C Mitchell, 66), D Mumm (capt), D Welch, T Johnson, J Scaysbrook (B White, 64), D Ewers.
London Wasps: A Masi (T Bell, 76); C Wade, C Bell (capt), C Hayter (B Jacobs, 61), J Bassett; A Goode, J Simpson (C Davies, 52); M Mullan (S McIntyre, 66), T Lindsay (N Cochrane, 55), J Cooper-Woolley (W Taylor, 66), J Launchbury, T Palmer (J Cannon, 67), A Johnson (sin-bin, 34-44), S Jones, E Jackson (G Thompson, 61).
Referee: M Fox (Leicestershire).