Exeter have started their season very well, and are separated at the top of the table from Saracens by only try bonus points, but Rob Baxter was left frustrated by their previous performance over Worcester despite a victory. Roll forward to this game, and a strong performance from Bath might have toppled last year’s runners up.
The effect of the incoming Girvan Dempsey has already been visible this season, with Bath’s attack looking much more incisive and asking plenty of questions from defences. Perhaps the biggest issue that Bath carry though, is their continuity of team from last season; only a handful of the starting line up played consistently through last season due to injuries. Effectively, a new look side is still in the process of understanding their game plan and each other.
That didn’t deter them from starting brightly in this fixture though. After an opening kick exchange from which no real winner emerged, Bath were quickly up in defence and strong in the tackle, thwarting Exeter from gaining the dominance at the breakdown and contact area that they thrive on.
They continued to keep their shape and structure well too, forcing Exeter to up their tempo in order to break them down. This resulted in plenty of errors from Exeter, who struggled to get a hold on the game.
Once Bath got the ball in hand, they attacked well, punching through the middle channels before spreading the ball into the wide areas. Testament to this was the level of distribution through the fixture from Rhys Priestland at 10. In comparison, Exeter were attacking the tight channels with the ball being distributed by Stu Townsend at 9.
Another aspect of the Bath line up that contributed to this game plan was the inclusion of Freddie Burns at full back. Much like Henry Slade moving into the centre, the extra space and time allowed in the wide areas gave him much more license to utilise his attacking talent.
By twenty-two minutes, Bath were leading 10 points to nil. After working the ball wide, Semesa Rokoduguni put in a well placed chip that was collected by Rhys Priestland. Freddie Burns knocked over the conversation, and things were looking good for the home side.
In a moment though, that all changed.
Bath again looked to open up the field and attack through the wide channels. The ball found its way to Freddie Burns, who perhaps in his eagerness to get the ball into the wide channel hastily offloaded the ball. Townsend intercepted and went the length. Exeter were back in the game.
Including Burns at fullback as I have said gives Bath an extra creative midfielder in the wider channels, as well as enabling them to field both he and Priestland. With so little game time and experience in a new position though, there are bound to be deficiencies in certain areas.
This was highlighted by Exeter’s second try shortly before the break when Steenson put a grubber through to Armand floating on the wing. A fullback with more experience might well have anticipated the play and positioned themselves wider to either reach the wide area sooner, or prevent the kick from coming in the first place.
As it was, Exeter went into the break with a small lead, the score thirteen points to fifteen.
Through to the hour mark, neither side had truly gained control of the match, and one felt that should one side do so, they would come away with the win. Bath were forcing Exeter into uncharacteristic mistakes and challenging well at the line out and scrum (despite some odd penalty decisions at times), but the lack of coherency suggested that they faced an uphill struggle to maintain a sufficient level that would enable them to come out as winners.
Exeter on the other hand, having a team who understand each other and their place in the overall game plan, were able to focus on the basics that they do so well; dominating the gain line and the contact area. The important shift in this respect was the introduction of Yeandle, Hepburn and Francis.
Furthermore, Bath had one achilles heel that Exeter had been able to exploit mercilessly; their transition from attack to defence was woefully slow and remarkably disjointed.
The ascendancy of the Devonshire men in these areas shifted the momentum in their favour such that they ran in three tries between the sixty and seventy minute marks, ending the game as a contest.
The final score, 24 points to 39.
Exeter will pleased to have come out of this fixture with a win, and while one might have felt they didn’t play particularly well early on, testament must go to Bath whose game plan shut them down.
Had this fixture been later in the season, increased cohesion and continuity in selection might have given Bath the extras required for overcoming Exeter. Despite the loss, there were a lot of positives on display, especially the ability of their opening tight five forwards to exert their influence on the fixture.