Munster retain control of Pool Two as Exeter win at Gloucester
Chiefs breathe life into their Champions Cup campaign with bonus-point away victory
Exeter’s bonus-point win away to Gloucester keeps their European campaign alive. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Gloucester 17-29 Exeter
A week in Europe can be a very long time, both in politics and in rugby. Last Saturday Exeter were desperately disappointed to lose at home to Gloucester in a result which appeared to have scuppered their European hopes. This time it was the Cherry and Whites who experienced a similar sinking feeling as Chiefs finally secured a relieving victory to throw Pool Two wide open.
Munster and Castres will both have enjoyed this result, although Exeter’s last-gasp try bonus point may yet complicate the equation. The Chiefs had threatened not to capitalise on the platform established via first-half tries from the excellent Sam Skinner and Don Armand until tries in the final six minutes from Jack Yeandle and Harry Williams with Josh Hohneck in the sin-bin settled the outcome. Gloucester took a long time to find their rhythm and were twice reduced to 14 men but a brace of tries from the full-back, Jason Woodward, kept them in contention deep into the final quarter.
The home team would have hoped for much better as they attempt to reach the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 2007-08. This leaves them little margin for error, with wins over Munster and Castres now required in January for them to stand any chance of progressing. Nor was the evening a memorable one for Danny Cipriani who, in front of the watching England head coach Eddie Jones, was forced off two minutes before the interval after taking a knock to his right shoulder and arm. Sport is full of ifs and buts and Cipriani’s timing has not always been the best.
With Jones in attendance on a chilly evening there was plenty at stake beyond mere pool points. Even with Cipriani off the field, Ollie Thorley for Gloucester and Exeter’s three front-row amigos Alec Hepburn, Ben Moon and Harry Williams, along with their teammates Armand and Jack Maunder, all had obvious incentive to impress beyond the usual west country bragging rights.
For the Chiefs there was also the small matter of improving their poor away record in Europe which, prior to this fixture, had produced just four wins in 17 attempts. The only available escape route into this season’s last eight following no victories in their opening three pool games was to be positive and Gareth Steenson duly spurned four early kickable penalties in favour of driven mauls.
The first three yielded nothing but the fourth was perfectly worked, with Skinner at the bottom of the heap. Steenson’s wide angled conversion was also spot on, rewarding the visitors for their first quarter dominance. One huge hit by Armand on Josh Hohneck was a further indicator of the Chiefs’ determination to atone for recent disappointments.
Gloucester, slow out of the blocks, had no choice but to rouse themselves. Their pack made some menacing yardage and, with advantage being played, a long ball out to Jason Woodward on the left belatedly put the hosts on the scoreboard. Cipriani badly mishit his conversion attempt but the choristers in the Shed finally had an excuse to clear their throats.
Rob Baxter, however, had spent all week urging the Chiefs to put the record straight. “The big question we have to ask as a group is why are we not getting our heads around the whole Heineken Cup thing yet?” stressed the director of rugby. Part of the solution clearly involved going back to basics and, following Cipriani’s departure, another trademark maul produced a try for Armand, converted by Steenson.
With two thirds of first-half territory and possession and a favourable penalty count, the Chiefs’ half-time advantage of 14-5 was entirely deserved, particularly given the absence of several prominent forwards. There is no question they have missed Sam Simmonds’ energy and Luke Cowan-Dickie’s full-frontal physicality, with Jonny Hill, Dave Ewers and Ollie Woodburn among the other non-combatants.
In Tom Lawday, however, they have a consistently hard-working number eight and only a professional foul by Billy Twelvetrees prevented Chiefs from adding a third try three minutes into the second half. No points were scored in Twelvetrees’ absence, however, and a second try by Woodward in the left corner at the start of the final quarter set up a frenetic if frozen-fingered finale. Tom Hudson gave Gloucester brief hope in the 76th minute but a poor clearance from Owen Williams in the final minute was smartly returned by Joe Simmonds and Williams crashed over in the final minute to put Exeter’s season back on track.