Exeter Chiefs do damage early against Cardiff Blues
Hosts at sandy Park ran in five first-half tries before visitors rally for bonus-point
Matt Jess of Exeter Chiefs scores a try during the Heineken Cup Pool Two match against Cardiff Blues at Sandy Park. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Exeter Chiefs 44 Cardiff Blues 29: Exeter Chiefs showed they were heading into this season’s Heineken Cup with renewed vigour after last weekend’s Aviva Premiership victory at Gloucester when they ran riot in the first half against Cardiff Blues at Sandy Park.
Five first-half tries — including three in a five-minute spell from Dean Mumm, Matt Jess and Fetu’u Vainikolo — earned the Chiefs a comprehensive 36-3 interval lead. The Blues mounted a second-half comeback, securing a try-scoring bonus point for their efforts, but had left their charge too late.
The Chiefs had to play with just 13 players in the final quarter after having two players in quick succession sent to the sin-bin by French referee Jerome Garace, but conceded only 12 points during their absence.
Tongan Vainikolo made his first competitive start for Exeter, replacing former Blues wing Tom James (ankle), while Jason Shoemark returned at inside centre in place of the injured Sam Hill. Cardiff were forced to shuffle their midfield with Cory Allen moving to outside centre in place of Owen Williams (hamstring) with Dafydd Hewitt coming into the starting line-up at inside centre.
The Chiefs made the perfect start by pressing the Blues’ line and, with the referee playing advantage, England flanker Tom Johnson put his head down to stretch for the opening try after eight minutes.
Outhalf Gareth Steenson saw his touchline conversion attempt hit the upright but the visitors hit back immediately through Leigh Halfpenny’s 40-metre penalty. The high-paced game continued with Exeter again trying to pin the Blues, wearing the European colours of pink shirts, back into their own half. The Chiefs were rewarded with a 22-metre penalty which Steenson slotted home.
Chiefs skipper Mumm took the ball into a ruck and emerged out of the other side to find a gap opening up in front of him before crossing for the second try on 24 minutes, which Steenson converted. A break down the left touchline with interplay between full-back Phil Dollman and inside centre Jason Shoemark laid the perfect foundation for Johnson, Mumm and Dave Ewers to put wing Jess away for the third try.
Steenson again added the extras. Minutes later the home fans were celebrating again as Vainikolo crossed, and Steenson converted for a 29-3 lead on the half-hour. Unforced errors crept into the Cardiff play as they looked to get back into the game. Five minutes before the interval Johnson took a heavy knock and had to leave the field to be replaced Kai Horstmann.
The Chiefs continued to bombard the Blues’ line, though, resulting in flanker Ben White scoring against his former club. Steenson’s touchline conversion hit the inside of the far upright before bouncing over the bar. The visitors started with real belief after the restart but, when within the Chiefs’ 22, they came up against a resolute defence.
The Chiefs weathered the storm and, from a 15-metre lineout, a well-taken ball was spread wide for Steenson to put outside centre Ian Whitten through for a sixth try, only for Steenson’s touchline conversion to hit the upright.
With 25 minutes still to play, the Blues finally crossed the whitewash as scrumhalf Lloyd Williams picked up from the base of a ruck to race 25 metres to the line, with Halfpenny adding the simple conversion. The Blues crossed for a second, again an opportunist try, as replacement back row Robert Copeland ran into acres of space from a ruck to touch down. Halfpenny again converted.
On the hour, Exeter were temporarily reduced to 13 men with first Whitten sent to the sin-bin and then Sireli Naqelevuki, who had only been on the field for five minutes, for a high tackle on wing Harry Robinson.
Cuthbert went down the right touchline and replacement scrumhalf Hayden Thomas just failed to bundle him into touch after the referee had consulted the TMO. Halfpenny’s attempt from out wide hit the far upright.
Cardiff secured their try-scoring bonus point for their fourth try when Robinson raced away, converted by Halfpenny, before Exeter returned to full strength as they sought to defend a 41-29 lead with seven minutes to play. Any hopes the Blues harboured of snatching a victory were dashed when replacement outhalf Henry Slade landed a 75th-minute penalty.
And Cardiff’s woes were compounded in the final minute when replacement hooker Marc Breeze was yellow-carded for an off-the-ball tackle on Thomas.