Exeter moved top of the Premiership after beating West Country rivals Bristol 24-14 at Ashton Gate. The Chiefs outscored their hosts 4-2 on tries in front of a 24,200-strong crowd, claiming a bonus point through flanker Jacques Vermeulen’s late touchdown.
It was nip and tuck for much of the game, yet Exeter kept their composure when it really mattered, and most notably when in sight of Bristol’s line. The prop Josh Iosefa-Scott, wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and scrum-half Stu Townsend also claimed tries for Exeter, while Henry Slade kicked two conversions.
Bristol responded with tries from Gabriel Oghre and Noah Heward, with Callum Sheedy kicking two conversions, but it proved another frustrating 80 minutes for Pat Lam’s team. Exeter are likely to lose top spot after the weekend’s games, but their status as genuine title playoff contenders cannot be questioned.
The hosts were without injured forwards Ellis Genge, Harry Thacker and Fitz Harding, while Exeter showed a number of changes from the side that beat Leicester last time out, including starts for lock Rusi Tuima and flanker Ross Vintcent.
Exeter’s pack soon began making headway, and they took a seventh-minute lead after sustained pressure inside the Bristol 22 led to Iosefa-Scott charging over and Slade converting. Bristol, though, were level within five minutes, striking from a close-range lineout drive that saw Oghre claim the touchdown and Sheedy convert as both sets of forwards went about their business in impressive fashion.
Although the referee, Christophe Ridley, blew for nine penalties during the opening quarter, attacking intent was highlighted by a stunning second Exeter try. Slick passing created space for Olly Woodburn to cut an incisive attacking angle, and Wales’s Six Nations squad hopeful Feyi-Waboso finished superbly for a 12-7 advantage.
The England head coach, Steve Borthwick, looked on as Bristol went ahead for the first time just three minutes before half-time. A lineout drive was thwarted by Exeter’s defence, but the ball was moved wide to Heward, who made short work of some questionable Chiefs defending to cross wide out.
Sheedy’s touchline conversion nudged Bristol two points ahead at the break in pursuit of a third successive Premiership victory following wins against Gloucester and Newcastle.
But Feyi-Waboso’s elusive running proved a handful for the Bristol defence, and he was at the heart of Exeter’s third try from their first attack after the break. The 21-year-old weaved his way to within touching distance of Bristol’s line, and despite being held up just short, his opportunism provided a simple finish for Townsend.
Yet Townsend immediately blotted his copybook, being sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on. Bristol could not make their temporary one-player advantage count, however, and Exeter retained a three-point lead approaching the hour mark.
The second half proved more of an attritional contest than the first 40 minutes, with defences dominating, before Exeter struck a final blow after Bristol ran out of steam. The home side could not make their attacking opportunities count, and the Chiefs stormed upfield, with the substitute Vermeulen touching down four minutes from time and Slade converting as a maximum five-point haul was secured.