Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but few onlookers would have found this top-of-the-table clash more absorbing than Bath v Wasps the previous evening. All, that is, except Eddie Jones, who may well have regarded this as a telling yardstick of the new year form of a few of his potential national squad candidates.
Jones, it seems, was not among those who relished the free-wheeling 11-try bonanza at the Rec on Friday – “terrible” was the England head coach’s disapproving verdict – and this altogether grittier contest was indeed closer in spirit to the trench warfare of the Autumn Nations Cup. On a cold, raw afternoon, it was certainly one to separate the fair-weather types from the tough nuts.
It also proved an auspicious occasion for Bristol, who sit top of the pile having inflicted the Chiefs’ second league defeat in consecutive weekends.
Individually the winners were probably Bristol’s Ben Earl and Exeter’s Jonny Hill, both of whom got properly stuck in and gave their respective teams much-needed rallying points. The decisive moment, though, came with 11 minutes left, when Bristol’s Fijian powerhouse Semi Radradra stormed unstoppably on to a short pass to touch down the day’s signature try.
“It’s a big win for the club,” said the Bears’ director of rugby, Pat Lam. “We talked about what it takes at Test match level, the intensity and physicality. You can’t just rock up, you have got to prepare the whole week. It was a massive effort by everybody.”
From his deep-frozen vantage point in the main stand, Jones will also have appreciated the spirit shown by the Simmonds brothers, although a nasty ankle tweak did hamper Exeter’s captain, Joe, slightly in the closing stages. Without the open-field pace of Sam, however, they might have succumbed earlier, the No 8 showing excellent acceleration to deny Harry Randall after brilliant approach work by the young Welshman Ioan Lloyd.
None of it was great news from Exeter’s perspective, with a couple of positive Covid tests having left some obvious holes in their starting lineup. The influential Dave Ewers was also forced to withdraw on the eve of the game through illness, a sizeable blow in every sense. It had made no difference back in the summer when Exeter’s second team beat Bristol’s top men at Ashton Gate, but the Bears – this was their sixth win in their last seven games – look much stronger now.
These sides have also won a European trophy since then and their aspirations have been adjusted higher still. Without the ballast of Ewers, though, Exeter found their normal close-range ruthlessness more elusive and the half-time score of 7-7 reflected a frustrating first 40 minutes for both teams.
On their first two visits to their opponents’ 22, the home side failed to come away with any points and it required swift cover defence and a fingertip touchdown in goal from Sam Hidalgo-Clyne to prevent a Bristol score at the other end. Otherwise it was mostly a case of cold fingers, Charles Piutau and Kyle Sinckler both finding their hands less secure than normal.
Bristol, however, made no mistake after 15 minutes, a 13-man maul ending with Randall, the smallest player on the field, credited with the score at the bottom of the pile.
So dissatisfied was the referee, Karl Dickson, with the number of collapsed scrums that he despatched Harry Williams and Jake Woolmore to the sin-bin after half an hour. Whatever the catalyst, Exeter began to make more headway and deserved their equalising score shortly before the interval.
A good run by Olly Woodburn and slick midfield hands worked a bit of space for Sam Simmonds on the left and, though he was tackled just short, it took only one ruck before Hill drove hard and low to open his side’s account. Joe Simmonds’s outstanding angled conversion merited another approving tick in Jones’s notebook.
The second half was equally tight, Callum Sheedy’s 44th-minute penalty giving the Bears a slender lead to protect.
The arrival of Jonny Gray further stiffened Exeter’s resolve but there was no stopping Radradra or Bristol. Much can still happen before the Premiership final in .late June but the Bears’ loud post-match rendition of their Wurzels’ anthem ’Blackbird’ out on the pitch will not easily be forgotten by either team.