Set-piece heaven for Leicester but Chiefs push them all the way

Exeter 15 Leicester 22

It is far from the deadliest of rugby's sins – biting, gouging, head-kicking and running off with the beer kitty are infinitely worse – but obliterating the opposition at the scrum and still losing the game takes some forgiving nonetheless. England, full of Leicester types, were guilty as charged in the far-flung union outpost of Western Australia last June and went within a single missed penalty of reoffending in New South Wales seven days later. Leicester, full of imports from here, there and everywhere, may not obey all of the laws all of the time, but they are wholly incapable of committing this particular crime.

The champions did not have things all their own way on their first Premiership visit to Devon yesterday: the young referee J P Doyle, fast-tracked into the professional ranks by a Twickenham hierarchy convinced of his ability to control the barely controllable, took a distinct dislike to the Midlanders' many and varied antics at the line-out, while the two brick-outhouses known as the Tuilagi brothers received quite a shock when they found themselves confronting a fellow South Seas citizen bigger than either of them. No man is an island, as the poet said, but Exeter's new Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki comes as close as anyone.

Yet irritations such as these pale into insignificance when a team finds itself in set-piece heaven. Armed with the magnificent Argentine manhandler Marcos Ayerza on the loose head and the fast-developing England prop Dan Cole on the tight, Leicester made their hosts' life a complete and utter misery whenever a player of either side fumbled a catch or flicked a pass forward, and as a consequence, the moving parts of Exeter's game were never quite synchronised.

Ayerza and company shoved the West Countrymen off their own ball twice in the first half, and when Naqelevuki was penalised for a deliberate knock-on of the slap-down variety deep in his own 22, the Leicester captain Geordan Murphy did not think twice before spurning a simple penalty in favour of another arm-wrestle. Sure enough, this no-brainer of a decision resulted in a close-range try for the hard-driving No 8 Jordan Crane. Murphy suspected there would be no escape for Exeter as long as they were kept under lock and key in the tight, and he was proved right.

There was never much chance of Leicester relinquishing a 15-6 lead, even though the sparky little Exeter outside-half Ryan Davis cut the deficit by three before the interval, and while the visitors were made to sweat until close of play, at no point did they find themselves in extremis. All the same, the Premiership newcomers took very nearly as much from the game as their elders and betters.

They squeezed out a losing bonus point – another nail in the coffin of someone else, be it Leeds, Newcastle or whoever – but that was not even the half of it. In matching the country's most successful side in so many areas, not least in the back-five forward department, they served formal notice that they will be in this top echelon of English rugby for a good while. How many promoted sides could have forced Leicester into a genuine 80-minute contest after conceding a daft try in the opening seconds? Answer: none spring to mind.

But for Mark Foster's misreading of an awkward bounce of the ball tight to the right touchline, the two Tuilagis would not have exploded upfield in time-honoured Samoan style – Alesana, the senior sibling, claimed the score – and the Tigers might not have enjoyed such a comfortable ride in the first quarter. Yet rather than sink into a trough of despondency, Exeter put this trauma behind them and set about their task with renewed energy.

In Rich Baxter, a one-club servant who lives on the family farm on the far edge of town, they had a No 8 who drove every bit as energetically as Crane. In James Scaysbrook, the former Bath forward and one of the few men in the side with previous Premiership experience, they had a willing gun dog of an open-side flanker who scavenged with considerable success. Last but by no means least, they had the elephant-lunged Tom Johnson on the blind side. He looked like the find of the season at the start of the campaign, and still looks like it now.

After the break, Exeter laid into Leicester afresh, and but for another misfortune affecting Foster – the wing scooped up some spilt ball in midfield and hared through a gap before firing a hopelessly misdirected pass at Nic Sestaret – they might even have secured themselves a five-pointer that would have compensated for their continuing difficulties at the scrum. As it was, Davis nailed another penalty to reduce the difference to three, and had a chance to put his side ahead after a thrilling run and chase from the full-back Luke Arscott was illegally neutralised by a retreating Toby Flood and sundry reinforcements. Sadly for Davis, he hooked his kick to the left of the sticks. On the basis that Leicester rarely give suckers an even break, it was perhaps predictable that they would immediately find their way to the other end of the pitch and wrap up victory in the twinkling of an eye.

Thomas Waldrom, a hunk of back-row granite from New Zealand, smashed it up twice as the Tigers set themselves a platform in the Exeter 22, and after a couple of dangerous little scampers from Ben Youngs, the ball found its way to Crane, who in turn found his way over the line. Flood converted, and for a moment, it looked as though the hosts would leave a sold-out Sandy Park with nothing to show for their considerable efforts.

Rugby is not always entirely heartless, though. With six minutes of normal time remaining, Gareth Steenson signalled his return from long-term injury by banging over a penalty from mid-range. It was no more than Exeter deserved, and if they can just sort out that scrum of theirs, there will be something more than a losing bonus available to them next time they welcome the champions to their city.

Exeter: Penalties Davis 4, Steenson. Leicester: Tries Crane 2, M Tuilagi; Conversions Staunton, Flood; Penalty Staunton.

Exeter L Arscott; M Foster, J Shoemark, S Naqelevuki, N Sestaret; R Davis (G Steenson, 72), H Thomas; B Sturgess, C Whitehead (S Alcott, 72), H Tui (C Budgen 54), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (C Slade, 72), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter.

Leicester G Murphy (capt); M Smith (H Agulla, 72), M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; J Staunton (T Flood, 58), B Youngs; M Ayerza (J White, 79), G Chuter (R Hawkins, 74), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 51), L Deacon, E Slater, S Mafi (T Waldrom, 54), C Newby, J Crane.

Referee J P Doyle (London West).