Bath Rugby 23, Exeter Chiefs 15: Bath hang on after Chiefs revival
Bath survived a remarkable second-half turnaround – and the bizarre dismissal of centre Dan Hipkiss while he was in the sin-bin – to claim the points at the Recreation Ground.
The Chiefs were outclassed in the first half as Bath ran in early tries by Ben Williams and Kyle Eastmond.
But Exeter showed all their true character to fight their way back after the break and had Bath on the ropes until Stephen Donald opened up a 23-15 lead in the last two minutes of normal time. Even then, both sides went toe-to-toe for a full seven minutes of additional time in search of bonus points.
After a brief Exeter flurry from the kick-off it was Bath who went ahead.
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The game was barely three minutes old when full-back Nick Abendanon made an outside break and fed Williams on the right touchline. The big centre brushed aside both Luke Arscott and Gonzalo Camacho to score in the corner. Donald converted.
Gareth Steenson had a penalty chance from 45 metres but struck the post and Bath resumed their assault at the other end. In a striking departure from their limited kick-chase approach in the first six weeks of the season, they began to use Eastmond off the wing as first receiver in broken play.
With Francois Louw bossing the breakdown, there was suddenly more space and time for the home backs.
In the 14th minute, Louw timed his run perfectly to spear through the Exeter midfield, only to be hauled down just short. Donald simply sent a looping pass to Eastmond who scored in the corner, but there was no conversion this time from the All Black fly-half.
It was nearly 20 minutes before Exeter managed to string together a threatening sequence of play, breaking out from their own line, but prop Brett Sturgess dropped a pass.
The loosehead made amends almost immediately, appearing on Tom Johnson’s shoulder to score in the corner after Exeter pressed home a penalty advantage. Steenson was wide with the conversion but there was only one score in it at
Referee Wayne Barnes began to lose patience with both sides at the breakdown, punishing each in turn for going off their feet.
Just before the break, the Chiefs infringed once too often and too close to the posts, leaving Donald a straightforward penalty to take his side 15-5 ahead.
Exeter reappeared in more focused mood, with Haydn Thomas getting his forwards operating more effectively. Jason Shoemark made a dangerous thrust into the Bath 22 and the eventual reward was a 50th-minute Steenson penalty.
Bath extended their lead when, after Donald opted for a line-out, they moved the ball and when it came back on the right, Abendanon fed Louw who rode Phil Dollman’s tackle to score in the corner. Donald missed the conversion.
Hipkiss was sin-binned for Bath in the 67th minute and Exeter’s advantage told as replacement Ignacio Mieres cruised over unopposed for Exeter’s second try, and also added the conversion.
It was all Exeter now, especially after Louw joined Carl Fearns among the casualties. Not only were Bath shipping penalties on the field but Hipkiss stupidly interfered with Arscott on the touchline as the Exeter full-back tried to field a Donald clearance. A second yellow brought the inevitable red and that was the end of his match.
Exeter laid siege to the Bath line until the ball was cleared downfield. Donald took his a chance to wrap up victory with a penalty from 30 metres.
Bath: Abendanon, Eastmond, Hipkiss, Williams, Biggs, Donald, Claassens, James, Mears, Wilson, Day, Attwood, Fearns, Louw, Skirving. Replacements: Vesty for Williams (70), Sharman for Mears (72), Perenise for Wilson (57), Hooper for Day (56), Skuse for Fearns (24), Catt for Louw (67). Not Used: McMillan, Agulla.
Scorers: Tries – Williams, Eastmond, Louw. Cons – Donald. Pens – Donald 2.
Sin Bin: Hipkiss (67).
Sent Off: Hipkiss (73).
Exeter: Arscott, Camacho, Dollman, Shoemark, Jess, Steenson, Thomas, Sturgess, Alcott, Rimmer, Mumm, Hanks, Johnson, Scaysbrook, Baxter. Replacements: Whitten for Arscott (54), Mieres for Steenson (54), Barrett for Thomas (72), Whitehead for Alcott (52), Muldowney for Hanks (54). Not Used: Moon, Budgen, Ewers.
Scorers: Tries – Sturgess, Mieres. Cons – Mieres. Pens – Steenson.
Ref: Wayne Barnes (RFU).