Steenson edges Exeter ahead in play-off battle

Exeter 9 Bristol 6
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The Independent Online

The first Premiership promotion play-off in a decade turned out to be an age-old West Country bone-cruncher, reminiscent of the days when the county championship meant something and the mighty Gloucestershire ventured south to Devon uncomfortable in the knowledge that for all their superior pace and skill, they would be given a thoroughgoing hurry-up at close quarters. At the end of a raucous night at Exeter's Sandy Park stadium – the centrepiece of their top-flight ambitions – the outcome remained very much up in the air.

Bristol will host the second leg next Wednesday night and should chisel out enough of an advantage to secure a fourth stint in the elite league, at the expense of Worcester. (The Rugby Football Union rubber-stamped the Midlanders' relegation shortly before kick-off by announcing that both promotion candidates had passed all the necessary tests and were Premiership-ready). However, they will not rest easy over the next six days, for they were given a torrid evening by a hard-driving Exeter pack in which the No 8 Richard Baxter, something of a local hero, played a major hand.

Without a line-out worthy of the name, the visitors still tested their hosts out wide. The Arscott brothers, together with Lee Robinson, asked serious questions when given space in which to play, and with David Blaney turning in an energetic performance at hooker, it seemed Bristol had all the game-breakers they needed. Yet it took a wonderful late covering tackle from the centre Junior Fatialofa, to hold things together.

The upshot of that all-out attack at the death was a third penalty for Gareth Steenson, who just edged out Adrian Jarvis in the marksmanship stakes. The question is this: will Steenson live to regret spurning two earlier shots in favour of close-range line-outs? According to the RFU, as much as £4m is riding on such decisions.

Exeter: Penalties Steenson 3. Bristol: Penalties Jarvis 2.

Exeter M Foster; M Jess, N Sestaret, P Dollman, P McKenzie; G Steenson, H Thomas; B Sturgess, N Clark (S Alcott, 63), H Tui (C Budgen, 66), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (D Gannon, 75), C Slade (T Johnson, 57), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter.

Bristol L Arscott; L Robinson, L Eves, A Fatialofa, T Arscott; A Jarvis, J Spice (capt); D Crompton (M Irish, 57), D Blaney, W Thompson, J Phillips, R Winters, I Grieve, R Pennycook (J Merriman, 49-57 and 73), D Montagu.

Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).

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