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Club Rugby

Exeter left to rue mistakes after shock loss to lowly Leeds

Leeds 27 Exeter 22

Exeter lost Sireli Naqelevuki, all 6ft 4in and 18st of him, shortly before yesterday's kick-off at Headingley, which left them open to allegations of carelessness until they explained that the unusually substantial Fijian centre had injured himself rather than disappeared off the face of the earth.

Still, the Devonians did everything in their power to appear negligent over the 80 minutes that followed, turning in a performance so sloppy, slapdash and slipshod that their hosts emerged not only with a victory they could scarcely have seen coming, but with the possibility of Premiership survival thrown into the bargain.

The four points Leeds earned yesterday were not enough to lift them from the bottom of the table, but the result will certainly have put the willies up Newcastle and Sale, the sides immediately above them. The Tynesiders are now only a drawn game ahead of their northern rivals and can feel Yorkshire breath on their necks. Sale, thoroughly walloped at Northampton on Saturday, are not out of the mire either.

"We need to win two more," said Neil Back, the former England flanker who has been in sole charge of Leeds' fortunes since the sacking of Andy Key as director of rugby shortly after Christmas. "That's a big call, because we've won only three of our last 18 matches. But we'll do what we need to do, or we'll die trying. Do I still believe? Without belief, there is nothing. Of course I believe."

That Exeter should lose to a driving-maul try completed by another of the many Pacific Islanders on show, the Samoan back-row forward Alfie To'oala, just about summed up their afternoon. Given the size of the West Country pack – their prop Hoani Tui must be the only forward in the world with a surname that takes up less space than his chest measurement – the likelihood of them conceding a score in such a way seemed more remote than Planet Zog, yet Leeds swept upfield off a Kearnan Myall line-out delivery with such aggression that the touchdown was a formality long before it happened.

Adrian Jarvis, hardly a marksman in the William Tell tradition, missed the conversion, so the home side were only five points to the good with 15 minutes of normal time remaining – a precarious position indeed, in light of their season-long inability to win close contests. The outside-half then hit the post with a 38-metre penalty shot from centre-field, and at this juncture, not even Back could be sure whether there was anything worth believing in. But with seven minutes left on the clock, Jarvis hit the spot with a drop goal to edge his side out of striking distance, and even though his opposite number Gareth Steenson replied in kind, the deed had been done.

Such an outcome seemed out of the question when Exeter set about splintering the Leeds scrum in the early stages. To'oala, Myall and Hendre Fourie were not backward in coming forward when there was loose ball to be won, but the platform provided by the visiting heavy mob allowed Richard Baxter and the two Jameses operating alongside him – Phillips and Scaysbrook – to play much more of a front-foot game. Although Fourie scored the opening try, diving over the spherical Chris Budgen from the side of a ruck near the Exeter line midway through the second quarter, it was difficult to see how Leeds could win.

Especially as Nemani Nadolo, an islander who makes Naqelevuki look like Tom Thumb, was loitering with destructive intent on the Exeter wing. The try he created for Bryan Rennie shortly after the restart was straight out of the Jonah Lomu Guide to Route-One Rugby, and if the Fijian selectors field their biggest back division at the World Cup – along with Nadolo, they have the prolific Napolioni Nalaga and the astonishing Rupeni Caucaunibuca – the New Zealand pitches will need to be widened by 50 metres, just so they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

As it turned out, Nadolo's stampeding presence was less productive than it was impressive, largely because his colleagues fluffed, faffed and fumbled their way through the encounter. Maybe they were confused by the Headingley surface, which, with its rugby league markings still visible, had four touchlines rather than two and no fewer than 17 lines running across it. To the naked eye, it looked less like a field than a geometry textbook, open at the migraine-inducing page dealing with circumscribed quadrilaterals.

Whatever the reason for his side's demise, the Exeter coach Rob Baxter was unamused. "It seems childish to say it, and I don't like talking about my team in defeat, but it does appear that we made more mistakes in that game that we've made all season," he remarked.

"Strangely, Leeds dealt with the pressure better than us. They were the ones who really needed to win; we were the ones who were approaching it looking to play a really good game of rugby. Yet the dumb decisions were made by us.

"We've hit a bit of a wall just recently when it comes to finding our way out of tight spaces, and we need to put it right. At the start of the season, any losing bonus point away from home would have been welcome. Now, having achieved what we have, losing bonus points are frustrating."

Scorers: Leeds: Tries Fourie, To'oala; Conversion Jarvis; Penalties Jarvis 4; Drop goal Jarvis. Exeter: Try Rennie; Conversion Steenson; Penalties Steenson 4; Drop goal Steenson.

Leeds M Stephenson; L Blackett, H Fa'afili, L Burrell, P Wackett; A Jarvis, S Mathie; G Hardy, S Thompson, P Swainston (J Gomez, 59), D Browne (D Paul, 63), M Wentzel (capt, R Oakley, 44), K Myall, H Fourie, A To'oala.

Exeter L Arscott; N Sestaret, J Shoemark, B Rennie (P Dollman, 64), N Nadolo; G Steenson, J Poluleuligaga (H Thomas, 62); B Sturgess (B Moon, 75), N Clark (C Whitehead, h-t), C Budgen (H Tui, 66), T Hayes (capt), C Slade (D Gannon, 66), J Phillips (T Johnson, 44), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter.

Referee T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire).