Premiership: Tigers show why this season will be all about the Big Three

Exeter 9 Leicester 21

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The Independent Online

You can take the man out of Leicester, but there is no reliable method of extracting the Leicester from the man. Dean Richards, that Great Shambling Bear of Tigers lore – a description that might confuse David Attenborough more than it does the Welford Road faithful – has had precious little to do with the midlanders for almost a decade now, but the two-time Lions No 8 and current Newcastle coach always makes a point of installing his old club as pre-season title favourites.

Well…almost always. This time, he hedged his bets just a little by predicting that Leicester and their fellow inhabitants of the M1 corridor, Northampton and Saracens, would spend nine months playing in a league of their own, thereby condemning the nine remaining Premiership teams to the relative anonymity of second-tier no-hopership.

His judgement seemed just a little on the harsh side at the time – what about Harlequins, champions as recently as 2012, or Gloucester, with their hot-shot England back-rowers and their palace-of-varieties back division? It is now looking more sound by the week.

Saracens are unbeaten, and Northampton would be in a similarly happy place but for a couple of refereeing decisions from Martin Fox at Kingsholm nine days ago that were some way short of fantastic. Leicester? They dropped a game at Bath when only half of Leicester turned up – many of their best players missed the early-season trip to the Recreation Ground because they were crocked – but by slapping down Exeter in deepest Devon yesterday afternoon and dropping anchor close to the top of the table, they added yet more weight to Richards’ argument. Even without players as potent as Mathew Tait, Manu Tuilagi, Marcos Ayerza and Steve Mafi, they inflicted damage on their hosts in all the foundation areas of the game – particularly at scrum and line-out, where Exeter struggled so badly in the first half that they were lucky to turn round within 20 points of the visitors. Leicester may not be in a position just yet to hurt opponents off the bench like Saracens and Northampton, but that will change as the absentees start drifting back. On the evidence thus far, 75 per cent of the Premiership fraternity are scrapping for a single end-of-season play-off place.

A few short months ago, a coach as sharp and bristlingly confident as Rob Baxter would have disagreed entirely with the notion that the top-flight of English rugby had in effect become two leagues in one. Yesterday, he could not quite summon a decisive counter.

“The three sides you mention are clearly very strong,” he admitted. “If I could flip the argument, I’d ask how close this game might have been if you’d seen a genuine Exeter performance in the first half. But if I’m honest, that performance wasn’t there. I’m as disappointed as I can remember being with a first-half showing since we came up into the Premiership. I don’t mind the winning and the losing – you deal with that at this level – but you have to fire some shots if you’re going to give yourselves a chance. We looked afraid today. We didn’t put ourselves out there and we allowed Leicester to think they could beat us simply by going from set-piece to set-piece. If it gets to the stage where players don’t feel excited by taking on a side like them, there’s something wrong.”

In fairness, there was nothing much wrong with the performance of the Exeter No 8 Dave Ewers, who, with some scavenging support from James Scaysbrook and the odd flash of class from the Test forwards Tom Johnson and Dean Mumm, at least made the title holders aware of his presence. But the home-town hooker Jack Yeandle had a horrible time of it with his  line-out throwing – had he been  playing darts in his local, the drinkers in the snug would have been in mortal danger – and together with his fellow front-runners, he had no answer to the all-international threesome of Logovi’i Mulipola, Tom Youngs and  Dan Cole.

Youngs is some player these days. His own throwing was a little wayward yesterday, but his work around the field was blisteringly good: direct, decisive and hugely damaging. The Lions hooker was once a centre – his scoring pass to brother Ben down the short side of a maul after 10 one-sided  minutes at the start of the contest was suitably sweet – but he now looks like something out of the Flintstones and could break rocks with his  bare hands.

A penalty from Toby Flood four minutes later – Jason Shoemark, the Exeter centre, was whistled for failing to roll away from a tackle, thereby setting the tone for the rest of the half – was the only further score until the Devonians, shovelling steaming great spadefuls of manure in full midfield retreat – handed Vereniki Goneva the most straightforward of breakaway run-ins from 45 metres. Shoemark was implicated in this shambles, too. He did not have the best of games.

There were times in the third quarter when Exeter, ears ringing following a 12-bore Baxter rollocking, showed signs of making a game of it. Indeed, three penalties from Gareth Steenson, one of them laughably awarded against a fast-advancing Leicester scrum, reduced the deficit to a mere half-dozen points. But when the visiting set-piece merchants wreaked their revenge – Brett Sturgess, the home prop, was the sacrificial victim – Flood duly bisected the sticks with another successful kick. The fly-half would go on to land another at the last knockings, by way of wrapping things up.

And so we head for the first of this season’s humdingers between two of the Big Three: an East Midlands derby between Leicester and Northampton at Welford Road in five days’ time. The Tigers fancy their chances, naturally – they always do when performing in front of their own legions – but they do not expect the free ride granted them by Exeter yesterday. The end of the phoney war is fast approaching.

Scorers: Exeter – Penalties: Steenson 3. Leicester – Tries: B Youngs, Goneva. Conversion: Flood. Penalties: Flood 3.

Exeter P Dollman; I Whitten, J Shoemark (M Jess 56), S Hill, T James; G Steenson (H Slade 63), H Thomas (D Lewis 53); B Sturgess (B Moon 61), J Yeandle (C Whitehead 61), H Tui (C Rimmer 63), D Mumm (capt), D Welch (T Hayes 71), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook (B White 56), D Ewers.

Leicester N Morris; B Scully, V Goneva, A Allen, A Thompstone; T Flood (capt), B Youngs; L Mulipola (B Stankovich 76), T Youngs (N Briggs 72), D Cole (F Balmain 77), L Deacon (J Gibson 63), G Parling (G Kitchener 49), E Slater, J Salvi, J Crane.

Referee T Wigglesworth (Yorkshire)