Exeter Chiefs 17 Bristol Bears 20
Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter admitted that the events of the past week might have affected his players as they suffered their first home defeat to Bristol in 10 years.
The Chiefs were left angry and frustrated when it was announced that Saracens had breached the salary cap in each of the last three seasons, and were hit by a 35-point deduction and a £5 million fine.
The Devon side have been impacted more than most by Saracens’ breaking of the rules, having lost the last two Premiership finals to their rivals.
When asked if that could explain away Exeter’s inexplicably poor second-half showing after they had led 17-0 at the break, with Bristol snatching victory with the last play of the game with a driving maul try by replacement back rower Dan Thomas to put them top of the Premiership table, Baxter said: “Possibly.
“We talked about the possible impact during the week because I was concerned.
“There are 11 teams in the Premiership who are going to get a little bit distracted by what has happened, apart from one (Saracens), who are going to come together a bit, and that is perhaps what could have happened to us.
“I wouldn’t like to use that as an excuse though, but if it has distracted us a little bit, we have got to fight to get it right and hopefully we have got it out of our systems today and that will be the end of it.”
It was a game of an amazing 39 turnovers, but Exeter uncharacteristically conceded 24 of them.
It was Bristol’s first win at Sandy Park in 10 years and delighted Bristol boss Pat Lam commented: “I am very proud of the guys, particularly when it wasn’t our best rugby, but probably top shelf regarding attitude, commitment and staying together as a team.
“The message at half-time was to start our game from scratch again, and the only way to get back into it was to build the scoreboard gradually and we did that.”
There was no sign of what was to come in the first half, when the Chiefs produced their best 40 minutes of the season.
Baxter gambled by bringing England World Cup trio Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell straight back into the 23 only eight days after the disappointing defeat in the final to South Africa, and it appeared it would pay off handsomely.
Slade, who was the only one of the three to start the game, looked in particularly sparkling form, playing a major part in both of Exeter’s tries.
A wonderful sidestep inside Bristol hooker Harry Thacker took the Chiefs close to the Bristol line before England No.8 Sam Simmonds sneaked over from a ruck, while his delightful midfield pass sent Scotland international Stuart Hogg racing away, with Australian scrum-half Nic White getting the touchdown.
Two Joe Simmonds conversions, and a penalty, and the Chiefs were firmly in the driving seat with a 17-point lead.
However, aided by a yellow card for White in the 62nd minute for what was deemed to be a deliberate on Bristol’s 22, the visitors cleverly worked their way back into the game.
Callum Sheedy kicked two penalties to reduce the deficit, followed by a fine touchline burst by Luke Morahan which sent fellow winger Piers O’Conor over in the corner and in behind the posts, with Sheedy converting.
Exeter looked set to see the game out, but they conceded two penalties in the dying seconds that saw Bristol go from one 22 to the other, and Thomas rewarded their efforts with a devastating catch-and-drive touchdown given by television match official Keith Lewis.
The level of Bristol’s celebrations said all you needed to know about how they viewed the derby victory.
Scoring sequence: 5-0 S Simmonds try, 7-0 J Simmonds con, 12-0 White try, 14-0 J Simmonds con, 17-0 J Simmonds pen, 17-3 Sheedy pen, 17-6 Sheedy pen, 17-11 Morahan try, 17-13 Sheedy pen, 17-18 D Thomas try, 17-20 Sheedy con.
Exeter Chiefs: S Hogg, T O’Flaherty, H Slade, S Hill (J Nowell 57), A Cuthbert, J Simmonds, N White (S Lonsdale 73), A Hepburn (B Keast 64), J Yeandle (capt) (L Cowan-Dickie 54), H Williams (M Street 64), J Kirsten, J Hill, J Vermuelen (D Armand 60), M Kvesic (J Maunder 68), S Simmonds.
Replacement not used: G Steenson.
Bristol Bears: C Piutau (I Lloyd 69), L Morahan, W Hurrell (T Fricker 53), S Piutau, P O’Conor, C Sheedy, H Randall (A Uren 57), J Woolmore (Y Thomas 60), H Thacker (W Capon 70), J Afoa (L Thiede ht), D Attwood (E Holmes 60), C Vui, S Luatua (capt), J Heenan (D Thomas ht), N Hughes.
Referee: K Dickson (RFU).
Try, Piers O'Conor! Exeter Chiefs 17 Bristol Bears 13, 66 minutes
Exeter are in danger of throwing this away. A really loose period featuring errors from both teams ends with Nathan Hughes flipping a pass to Morahan, who breaks around Nowell and feeds O'Conor on the inside.
The conversion is easy for Sheedy. Now then...
Exeter Chiefs 17 Bristol Bears 3, 55 minutes
Hughes spills so Chiefs get the put-in but it's really mess and Bristol muscle a turnover. Kvesic makes a nuisance of himself a few phases later, though, and it's another scrum to the hosts.
Huge cheers roll away Sandy Park. Jack Nowell is on for Sam Hill.
Try, Nic White! Exeter Chiefs 14 Bristol Bears 0, 23 minutes
What a try. Exeter nab the lineout and move the ball quickly to their right edge. The Simmonds brothers move the ball to Slade, who flicks on to Hogg. Tom O' Flaherty tears down the flank.
The ball moves in-field and then White snipes back against the grain to score. Joe Simmonds converts. Exeter look in the mood to cause serious trouble here.
Exeter Chiefs 0 Bristol Bears 0, 8 minutes
More scruffiness, but this time it comes from an excellent defensive read from Bristol centre Will Hurrell, who pressurises Joe Simmonds after running past the decoy line of Henry Slade.
Matt Kvesic spills a few minutes later when Exeter attempt a bounce-back move but Jack Yeandle saves his side with a breakdown turnover. Slade whacks to touch.
Exeter Chiefs 0 Bristol Bears 0, 2 minutes
Encouraging start from Exeter. Hogg gets the ball in his hands down the blindside and beats another man. Jonny Hill hits a good angle in midfield a few phases later.
There is a knock-on on the edge of Bristol's 22, though, so the Bears will feed the first scrum.
'We have to focus on ourselves'
Rob Baxter says the best way to respond to a turbulent week is to deliver a performance.
Interestingly, he says that his World Cup contingent are ready to go and that Exeter would be "running away from a decision" if they rested Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Nowell - as well as Australia scrum-half Nic White.
He wants to see where they are now and organise a break for them later.
'These guys are 11 or 12 years in the making'
A typically interesting interview from Bristol director of rugby Pat Lam, who says that Exeter have built up cohesion over the past few years and 'work a certain way to try and fatigue you'.
He also points out that this will let him know where the Bears are as a team.
Hello and welcome to our live text commentary of this Premiership encounter between Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears. It’s a south west regional derby – there are plenty of those in this competition now – and should be a compelling game.
Of course, the unavoidable story of this week in English domestic rugby has revolved around Saracens and the salary cap. Having lost to Mark McCall’s side in the last two Premiership finals, Exeter have more reason than most to feel aggrieved.
This is what Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter said earlier this week:
“We’ve actually just cleared the decks a little bit in our meeting today. I just sat in front of all the players and said ‘What do you think of all this salary cap stuff?’
“At first, they all looked at me a bit strangely, but I know they’ve all been talking about it and I know they will all feel differently about it all.
“Some will feel sorry for themselves as they think things haven’t been all that fair. Others will be angry and others will be looking forward to playing Saracens again.
“Across the board, there are all kinds of emotions, but what I’ve just said to them all is let’s make sure we clarify what we are all about. We are a club that have an important Premiership game this Sunday. We’ve worked very hard to be here and this is what should occupy all of our energy.
“As I said to them all, I think it’s good not to run away from interesting conversations the lads are going to have among themselves, simply because by doing that it now allows us to get out and train really well for Bristol.”
It will be extremely interesting to gauge the reaction of the hosts at Sandy Park, because Bristol will not die wondering.