Exeter Chiefs have everything in place for the year when the World Cup comes to the true West Country: their £10m extension, their splendid pitch, the biggest ever crowd to watch a match at Sandy Park. All but, at the moment, a winning team.
That may be unfair to the Chiefs but their 100th Aviva Premiership game since promotion in 2010 was also their third defeat in a row. The width of an upright was the difference in this enthralling derby, denying Gareth Steenson the conversion of a try by Thomas Waldrom, and although they remain in fourth place in the table, that could change.
Andy Farrell, the England backs coach, was on hand to watch Billy Twelvetrees and Henry Slade joust in midfield, as well as to run an eye over Jonny May and Jack Nowell on the wings. This game would not necessarily have helped his judgement on England’s problem positions: both the centres kicked and defended well, though Twelvetrees gave away a try when his pass was intercepted, while Nowell was lively throughout.
There might have been three Exeter tries before the interval; that there were none reflected well on Gloucester’s scramble defence but their slim half-time lead also owed much to Exeter spurning penalty opportunities, going instead for close-range lineouts.
Matt Jess knocked-on going for a wickedly-bouncing ball in goal, Nowell kicked and chased from halfway but lost his balance, along with May, as the defence converged over the try-line, while a delightful switch close to a ruck between Will Chudley and Phil Dollman deserved more than a scrum 20 metres out.
But inaccuracy troubled both sides and, understandably, when Gloucester had the sniff of a score, they took it. Greig Laidlaw kicked penalties from 42 and 27 metres. Exeter, by contrast, hoofed three kickable penalties to touch and promptly handed Gloucester a get-out-of jail card by conceding penalties of their own.
Rob Baxter, Exeter’s coach, claimed the wind dictated the decision-making, but the complexion of the game changed completely after Twelvetrees landed a long-range drop goal to extend Gloucester’s lead. Two tries in two minutes gave the Chiefs the lead, the first when Nowell wriggled clear from a ruck twenty metres out, the second when Jess snapped up the errant Twelvetrees pass.
Exeter’s sloppy clearance then gave Tom Savage a charge-down try and when Matt Kvesic made an intelligent run and kick, Nowell was caught on his own line and, from the five-metre scrum, Ben Morgan squeezed over. Exeter were not done: they mauled forward from a line-out and Waldrom shunted his way over for the try that Steenson could not convert.
“We talked about turning points, that losing back-to-back games at Kingsholm wasn’t acceptable,” David Humphreys, Gloucester’s director of rugby, said. “Our set- piece was good and if we get our defence right – which we did today – that goes a long way towards winning games.”
Exeter: P Dollman (B McGuigan, 80); J Nowell, H Slade, S Hill (I Whitten, 62), M Jess; G Steenson, W Chudley (H Thomas, 56); B Moon (C Rimmer, 57), J Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie, 57), M Low (T Francis, 53), D Mumm (captain), M Lees (J Sexton, 46), D Ewers, B White, T Waldrom.
Gloucester: C Sharples; D Halaifonua, M Atkinson, B Twelvetrees (captain), J May; J Hook, G Laidlaw; N Wood, D Dawidiuk (A Lutui, 53), J Afoa (S Knight, 75), T Savage, T Palmer, S Kalamafoni (G Evans, 53), M Kvesic, B Morgan.
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