The restarted season is already panning out decently for Exeter. The Premiership leaders took a while to resume normal service after five months of competitive inaction but long before the final quarter it was already evident that Rob Baxter’s side would be extending their lead over the rest of the field.
With the pursuing Sale Sharks having lost on Friday, a victory in Manchester this Friday would open up a double-digit gap between the two teams and there is every chance Exeter will be sharper for this bonus-point sighter. Three of their four tries came from familiar close-range pressure but Stuart Hogg’s flying 39th-minute score was a delightful reminder they can be beautiful as well as beastly.
They have also now proved they do not require a raucous home crowd to set the necessary tone. Even in the absence of their erstwhile Big Chief mascot and tomahawk-chopping supporters, they had their extra point wrapped up inside 55 minutes and the low hum of holiday traffic on the neighbouring M5 was increasingly drowned out by the satisfied voices of their backroom staff.
Up front, in particular, the Chiefs strength in depth is scarily evident; if Dave Ewers, Sam Simmonds and Jonny Hill are not smashing the opposition then Jonny Gray, Sam Skinner and Don Armand eventually will. Without Jack Nowell, nursing a tweaked hamstring, and Jacques Vermeulen, recovering from a minor knock in training, they still had too much muscle for a reshuffled Leicester team still working out how to fill the sizeable midfield hole left by Manu Tuilagi’s departure.
The Tigers, clad in ketchup red, did at least enjoy a bright start, clearly energised by their new-look coaching lineup. Steve Borthwick’s arrival will, if nothing else, guarantee a redoubled work ethic but it was the zero-tolerance officiating stance around the breakdown that caused both sides most problems. Thirty-five penalties in 80 minutes is a significant number, with Leicester conceding 22 of them.
Even in the first quarter as George Ford kicked a penalty and a neatly taken drop goal, there was always a suspicion that Exeter’s familiar close-quarters strength would assert itself at some stage. Social distancing is all very well but the gigantic Ewers much prefers contact situations, barging unstoppably over in the right corner after 27 minutes.
Now it was the visitors’ turn to feel the world was turning against them. Leicester conceded the next nine penalties, allowing Exeter to settle into some rhythm and the home side’s gathering confidence was reflected in a brilliant score shortly before the interval. An exquisitely timed pass from Joe Simmonds freed up some precious midfield space and Hogg’s diving finish in the right corner was due reward for a slickly executed attack.
Things did not improve for the Tigers upon the resumption. Two further penalty concessions put them under renewed pressure close to their own line where Luke Cowan-Dickie, increasingly prolific for club and country, burrowed over for a third Exeter try. A penalty try soon delivered them their bonus and while Leicester struck back spiritedly with a penalty try of their own there was to be no late twist.
Clearly it will take time for Borthwick’s influence to be felt and, in many ways, the remainder of this curtailed season is a perfect opportunity to try out a few things and mould the kind of no-nonsense pack that was Leicester’s defining feature in their glory years. On this occasion they defended stoutly and Ford did his best to spark something around him but the constant peep of the referee’s whistle was ultimately the day’s abiding memory.
At least it was real live rugby after so many weekends of inaction. If it did not feel much like August, with a humid drizzle never far away, it was something to cling to, even if there were more fans watching in Gareth Steenson’s city centre Stand Off bar than in the stands.
For those rattling around Sandy Park, surreal is the recurring word. Take the pasties, the cider and the sunshine away and it suddenly needs a good game to create any sort of atmosphere and the trial return of crowds cannot come quickly enough for all concerned.
To complete a productive weekend, Henry Slade’s partner gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, on Friday. Exeter will be hoping for more reasons to enjoy a celebratory drink between now and the end of October.