Exeter Chiefs 46 Gloucester 10
EXETER Chiefs booked their place in the end-of-season Premiership play-offs with a convincing six-try win over West Country rivals Gloucester at a sell-out Sandy Park.
Jack Nowell scored two touchdowns in his first game in an Exeter shirt since December as he made his return from an ankle injury picked up in England training.
There were also tries for man of the match Alec Hepburn, Sam Simmonds, Olly Woodburn and Gareth Steenson, with Joe Simmonds kicking seven from eight attempts at goal for a personal 16-point haul.
It was all done in front of England head coach Eddie Jones and his scrum coach Neal Hatley – with the England management team watching their third successive Chiefs game.
The one downside for Exeter was a misfiring line-out, which will have disappointed hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie as he tried to impress Jones, but he was excellent around the field.
Gloucester started both halves impressively, with Owen Williams kicking a seventh-minute penalty, soon after centre Henry Trinder had seen a try ruled out by the television match official for a foot in touch, and a Callum Braley touchdown early in the second period, after a fine break by Mark Atkinson, with Williams adding the conversion.
But other than that, little was seen of them as an attacking force as they looked for a win that would have propelled them to right on the coat tails of fourth-spot Wasps in the race for the play-offs.
Instead, they spent large parts of the game defending against an Exeter side who seemed to enjoy having the sun on their backs, after all of the recent bad weather.
Nowell’s second try was the pick of the Chiefs’ scores, as he managed to wriggle his way clear of three Gloucester tacklers and run in from 25 metres out after a fine pass by Henry Slade.
Sam Simmonds bagged his 12th touchdown of the season to keep him at the top of the Chiefs’ try-scoring charts, but he is closely followed by Woodburn and Don Armand on 10 apiece.
Gloucester suffered a blow by losing scrum-half and skipper Willi Heinz after only 15 minutes, at the same time as Exeter centre Sam Hill had to leave the field with a stomach bug that I understand had affected the likes of Nowell, Cowan-Dickie and Slade in the run-up to the game.
Sam Simmonds also went off in the dying moments, to be replaced by Steenson, with Ian Whitten moving into the pack, as he was suffering from cramp.
A draw at bottom side London Irish next Sunday will be enough to see the Chiefs secure a home play-off semi-final, and at the moment they are looking good to go all the way to their third successive Premiership final at Twickenham.
Exeter head coach Ali Hepher said: “As you approach any season, your first goal is to get in the top six, and you move your targets on as that gets achieved, to top four, and then pushing for a home semi-final.
“We take it game by game, and the pleasing thing is we have set ourselves up nicely with the amount of conditioning we have got into ourselves today in a tough old match against Gloucester, and we kept pushing right the way to the end, and that will help us in the latter stages of the season.
“If you go around our dressing room, there are guys in there who have absolutely written themselves off.
“Gloucester are a good side and they are aggressive with their line speed and they are physical and they won away in Ireland last week, and we knew we had to hit the pitch flying and we didn’t quite do that, and we took a little bit of time to get into it, and in the first 20 minutes we looked a little bit passive and a little bit rusty, as we have only had one game in a month with that group of guys.”
Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann commented: “Credit to Exeter, they were ruthless, and any opportunities they get, they are going to punish you.
“We started well but then our discipline cost us a lot of penalties and they started to build a lead, and you have to be pretty good to play catch-up rugby against a quality side like them.
“You also need things to go your way, and after five minutes I felt it wasn’t our day.
“We put pressure on their line-outs, and even when they overthrew them, the ball still bounced to them.
“I also felt there were a few decisions that could have changed the game in the first 15 minutes, and two or three tackles that were held up and should have become a maul and been our turnover, and two forward passes missed and they scored off one, but you get those days when it feels like everything is against you.”
Exeter Chiefs: L Turner, I Whitten, H Slade, S Hill (J Nowell 15), O Woodburn, J Simmonds, N White (S Townsend 59), A Hepburn (B Moon 59), L Cowan-Dickie (J Yeandle 59), T Francis (G Holmes 59), S Skinner, J Hill (M Lees 61), D Dennis (D Ewers 51), D Armand (capt), S Simmonds (G Steenson 68).
Gloucester: T Hudson, C Sharples, H Trinder, M Atkinson, T Marshall (B Twelvetrees 67), O Williams (B Burns 60), W Heinz (capt) (C Braley 15), J Hohneck (P McAllister 60), J Hanson (M Matu’u 60), J Afoa (F Balmain 60), T Savage, E Slater (J Thrush 65), R Ackermann (J Polledri 65), L Ludlow, B Morgan.
Chiefs: Tries: Hepburn, S Simmonds, Woodburn, Nowell (2), Steenson; Cons: J Simmonds (5); pens: J Simmonds (2).
Gloucester: Try: Braley; Con: Williams; Pen: Williams.
Yellow card: Gloucester: R Ackermann 38.
Referee: Tom Foley (RFU).