Leicester came away from Sandy Park with the victory, but they were made to work by a resolute Chiefs side that very nearly toppled the heavy favorites. Exeter didn’t waste much energy at the breakdown, instead choosing to set their line in defense and the tactic gave the Tigers very little room to work with on attack. Leicester adapted, as a team of their calibre should, and got the job done through some strong tactical play and hard yards from the big men up front.
It was nice to see Freddie Burns enjoying his rugby again. After his dismal season with Gloucester, he was in fine form, particularly with the boot. Time and again he plugged the corners and his tactical awareness was spot on. From the tee he was spot on and after early suggestions that he would start as second fiddle to Owen Williams, it’s hard to see him relinquishing the jersey at least for now.
Vereniki Goneva of course scored a hat trick against Newcastle and looked dangerous again this week, though he won’t want to watch his clumsy challenge on Haydn Thomas again. Manu Tuilagi doesn’t look quite as sharp as of yet. While still displaying his trademark power, he’s been shackled fairly tamely apart from one big break against Falcons. His defensive positioning looked a little shaky at times, and nearly cost Tigers a try when Goneva was in the bin.
Up front Logovi’i Mulipola has returned in beast mode. If he isn’t the most powerful runner in the Premiership he’s damn close. His prop partner Fraser Balmain hasn’t been quite as happy. He looks a little soft at the moment and has struggled in the scrum.
Tigers will be eager to get Brad Thorn into the side, with Ed Slater’s strength a real loss in the engine room. Graham Kitchener has looked pretty good in all areas so far, but isn’t quite in the same category in terms of physical menace. Leonardo Ghiraldini and Robert Barbieri are welcome additions, though both still getting up to speed with Premiership Rugby.
Exeter can be pleased with their effort. The defense was very strong, and they had more than enough chances on offense to earn the win. A little more accuracy and composure in those scoring opportunities and they’ll be taking another step up the ladder.
A few eyebrows went up seeing Henry Slade selected at no13, but he has hardly blinked. He’s still on the slender side of things but looks a little more rugged this season. His form has been outstanding, offering another foil for Gareth Steenson with Sam Hill the hard running option in between. Hill’s attacking has been very strong, hitting some good lines and stepping well in close quarters, but he’ll want to tidy up his catching and passing. A poor knock-on added to a dodgy pass to Matt Jess on a 2-on-1 both could have resulted in points.
Jess himself had the blinkers on after stepping three would-be defenders. With a 4-on-1 overlap to his left he stepped inside and was collared by two tacklers. Those are the chances the top sides take advantage of, the difference between the mid-table slog and trophy-cabinet contenders.
Thomas Waldrom looks revitalised in his new home, and the black jersey is quite slimming on the big man. He gives the Chiefs another quality ball runner to take some pressure off Dave Ewers, who looks to have slotted over to the blindside with no issue. Combined with Ben White it’s a very useful back row, and it will be interesting to see who makes way when England flanker Tom Johnson returns to fitness. Johnson is more a pacy carrier than a traditional openside, so there will have to be a bit of juggling.
One question Chiefs might be asking Rob Baxter is why he took off Haydn Thomas with 20 minutes still on the clock. The scrumhalf was having a fine game, scoring a try and keeping the tempo up. Whatever the desired effect of introducing Will Chudley was supposed to be, it didn’t pay off. His inability to clear the ball from a stagnant maul when J.P. Doyle had clearly indicated that it needed to be was a bad mistake.
Despite the self-inclicted damage it was a mostly positive outing for the home side, and one to build on given that several big name players were absent. Richard Cockerill will be happy to get the away win, but a little concerned with some defensive issues. It looks like another tough year in the Premiership, with every game full-on and few, if any, free rides for the big guns.