Bath Rugby 16-6 Exeter Chiefs: Peter Stringer's reminder that class is permanent
Peter Stringer became an instant Bath hero after the on-loan scrum-half kept his new side’s LV= Cup hopes alive with a brace of second half tries against Exeter Chiefs.
The 98-cap Ireland international only arrived at The Rec from Munster at the start of the week, with head coach Gary Gold drafting him in as injury cover for Michael Claassens.
Although initially named on the bench, Stringer proved there is still plenty of life left in his 35-year-old legs as he turned a game which Exeter had controlled up to the break completely on its head.
First-team coach Toby Booth was quick to praise Stringer for turning Bath’s fortunes around after replacing Mark McMillan two minutes before half-time.
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“Strings’ impact was very noticeable. We talk about class being permanent and we saw that today,” said Booth.
“There are no secrets with a man of that experience – when to kick, when to run, where to go – it just comes easy to him.
“He has come in and fitted in straight away. He’s had an impact on the field and the training pitch. That’s great – it can only be good for us.
“With Mark it was a blood change first of all but he had a slight hamstring strain at the same time.
“With Pete on the bench, we thought it’s just not worth risking it and that situation gave us a good opportunity to get Pete on the pitch. We thought we’d be proactive.”
Hooker Rob Webber and flanker Mat Gilbert also made their Bath debuts at The Rec, with Booth blaming match rustiness for the slow start.
“We had a lot of boys who were playing their first rugby for months,” said Booth.
“In the first 40 minutes people were feeling their way into the game and we just didn’t respect the ball enough.
“We gave it away a bit too cheaply and Exeter are a side renowned for keeping it for long periods.
“We turned around a situation that we probably created ourselves and the second half was massively improved.
“They’d had 40 minutes under their belts, there were a few bits and pieces we tweaked and we had people like Strings coming on and making a big difference.
“As the game went on we got stronger and rightly got rewarded.”
Fly-half Tom Heathcote put the home side ahead with a penalty inside five minutes but Chiefs dominated the following quarter-of-an-hour and were only prevented from taking a stranglehold on the game by fine Bath defence.
The boot of Henry Slade soon levelled things up, while a careless forward pass denied lock Damian Welch a close-range try.
After an initial good break by Watisoni Votu down the right, the ball was spun to the opposite wing where Welch was in acres of space. Luke Cowan-Dickie sent the final pass forward, however, meaning Bath escaped unscathed.
More solid defensive work from the hosts continued to frustrate Exeter, who finally got themselves ahead with another Slade penalty after 24 minutes, although the reward was far less than what they had hoped for.
Parity was quickly restored, though, when Heathcote split the posts on the half-hour mark but the hosts suffered a set-back when Ben Williams had to be helped from the field after a taking a blow to the head during a tackle.
Bath survived until the break but Votu continued to cause problems when the second half got under way, with the Fijian winger setting off on a devastating drive through the centre of the pitch.
Stringer was able to provide the home side with the impetus they needed, however, and after flanker Gilbert had been held up over the line, the Irish debutant grabbed two tries in the space of four minutes.
With Bath finally able to put pressure on their opponents’ tryline, the Exeter defence buckled midway through the second half and Stringer twice broke off the back of driving mauls to dart over the whitewash in clinical style.
Exeter tried to respond but when Mark Foster dropped the ball with the tryline in sight five minutes from time, the visitors knew their chance had gone and Bath were able to run the clock down with ease.
Bath travel to local rivals Gloucester next Saturday for their final Pool 4 game and know they must better Northampton Saints’ result at Exeter’s Sandy Park to reach the semi-finals.
Bath: Cuthbert, Lane, Banahan, Williams, Woodburn, Heathcote, McMillan, Beech, Webber, Perenise, Hooper, Attwood, Koster, Gilbert, Skirving. Replacements: Rokoduguni for Lane (67), Vesty for Williams (33), Stringer for McMillan (38), Catt for Beech (45), Batty for Webber (41), Palma-Newport for Perenise (78), Skuse for Koster (65), Spencer for Gilbert (78).
Scorers: Tries – Stringer 2. Pens – Heathcote 2.
Exeter: Nowell, Votu, Sestaret, Hill, Tatupu, H. Slade, Chudley, Rimmer, L. Cowan-Dickie, Mitchell, Carrick-Smith, Welch, Conlon, White, Horstmann. Replacements: Foster for Sestaret (62), Dorrian for H. Slade (62), Poluleuligaga for Chudley (61), Budgen for Rimmer (71), Yeandle for L. Cowan-Dickie (61), Brown for Mitchell (61), Simmonds for Conlon (71), Blanchet for White (78).
Scorer: Pens – H. Slade 2.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).