It was all or nothing in Europe for Premiership powerhouses Exeter as they headed to local rivals Gloucester this evening, claiming a much-needed five-point victory to keep their Champions Cup hopes alive.
The evening's all-English clash had began to hint towards a home victory, with Gloucester presenting themselves as the more composed of the two sides. A usually reliable Exeter maul was shut down in convincing fashion by the Cherry and Whites in the fourth minute.
Gloucester continued to dominate during the opening quatre, although failed to register the first points of the day. This honour would go to Exeter in the 21st minute, when a second Chiefs maul rumbled over the whitewash, seeing newly capped Scottish international Sam Skinner claim the first score of the day. Gareth Steenson's subsequent conversion from the touchline cemented the visitors' eventual lead.
Gloucester responded to Skinner's score eight minutes later through fullback Jason Woodward, who cantered in after fielding Ed Slater's try-scoring overhead pass. Slater's assist is over-shone only by the manner in which Gloucester stormed through Exeter's territory, with Ollie Thorley snatching up a poorly executed cross-field kick from Chiefs fly-half turned fullback Joe Simmonds. Gareth Evans' fend on Exeter fullback Santiago Cordero sent the Argentinian skittling to the floor, setting up the field position for the eventual score.
Exeter went on to dominate possession and territory after conceding their first try of the day, a score in which Gloucester standoff Danny Cipriani failed to convert. The visitors set up camp in their opponent's 22, seeing a patient ten minute period profit a second score from short range, with club favourite Don Armand crashing over from short range after being denied an initial try three minutes earlier. Steenson's second conversion of the day would bring an end to the first 40, with the Chiefs boasting the lion's share of possession and territory.
Having lost star fly-half Cipriani to a shoulder injury three minutes before half-time, Gloucester began their second half with Welshman Owen Williams shifting in from inside centre and Tom Hudson arriving from the bench.
âCipriani's absence would be largely unnoticed during the early phases of the second-half, with Exeter once again keeping it tight, challenging Gloucester's pack and defensive line. It would be Cipriani's opposite man, Steenson, to provide the first points of the half, slotting a penalty in the 55th minute to extend Exeter's lead to a healthy 12 point margin (5-17). A single penalty from the Irishman's boot will have been considered a small price to pay for Gloucester, with former club captain Billy Twelvetrees seeing yellow for an infringement on Gloucester's try line after a threatening period of Exeter possession.
The Chiefs' lead would suffer a five point blow in the 64th minute when Woodward crossed for his and Gloucester's second score of the day. Williams, like Cipriani, failed to take a successful conversion, making the score 10-17 with fifteen minutes to go.
The home side went on to pressurise their guests but proved too eager to pull the rabbit out of the proverbial hat, falling afoul of numerous handling errors and general inaccuracies at the set-piece.
True to their nature, Exeter went on to dominate possession and creep towards Gloucester's line, seeing captain Jack Yeandle cancel out Woodward's second score with the oh so familiar Chiefs mauling game, taking the visitors into a lead exceeding a single score once again.
A dramatic 76th minute try down the left side of the field for replacement Hudson, following a clean break by blindside flanker Freddie Clarke, took Gloucester a mere five points behind the visitors, with three minutes left on the clock to claim back-to-back wins over the 2017 Premiership champions.
Whilst backed deep into their own half shortly after Hudson's score, Williams took the decision to hit the gamble button and chip over the Chiefs' defensive line for Twelvetrees to collect. Simmonds collected William's kick and headed straight for the posts, making a healthy ten metres through heavy traffic. After Simmonds was initially brought down just before the line, reserve tighthead prop and returning England man Harry Williams crashed over in the 79th minute to crush any hopes of an enthralling comeback from Gloucester and securing a bonus-point score for the Chiefs.
Following Steenson's penalty, Gloucester played two minutes of furious rugby in hopes of securing bonus points for a narrow loss and fourth score. Exeter leaves Kingsholm Stadium with a 29-17 victory and much-improved performance following their home defeat to Gloucester six days previously.â
Tries: Woodward (30, 65) Hudson (76)
Conversions: Twelvetrees (77)
Tries: Skinner (22) Armand (40) Yeandle (74) Willliams (79)
Conversions: Steenson (23, 41, 80)
Penalties: Steenson (55)
15. Jason Woodward
14. Charlie Sharples
13. Billy Twelvetrees
12. Owen Williams
11. Ollie Thorley
10. Danny Cipriani
9. Willi Heinz (capt)
1. Josh Hohneck
2. Jacon Visagie
3. Fraser Balmain
4. Ed Slater
5. Franco Mostert
6. Freddie Clarke
7. Gareth Evans
8. Ben Morgan
16. Henry Walker, 17. Alex Seville, 18. Ciaran Knight, 19. Gerbrandt Grobler, 20. Alex Craig, 21. Callum Braley, 22. Matt Banahan, 23. Tom Hudson
15 Joe Simmonds
14 Santiago Cordero
13 Ian Whitten
12 Sam Hill
11 Tom O'Flaherty
10 Gareth Steenson
9 Jack Maunder
1 Alec Hepburn
2 Jack Yeandle (capt)
3 Tomas Francis
4 Dave Dennis
5 Sam Skinner
6 Sean Lonsdale
7 Don Armand
8 Tom Lawday
16 Elvis Taione, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Mitch Lees, 20 Wilhelm Van der Sluys, 21 Sam Maunder, 22 Ollie Devoto, 23 Phil Dollman