Exeter did on Friday night what they’ve done in almost every Aviva Premiership game since November – win.
Devon ruled the capital as Exeter’s pursuit for a home semi-final continued with a 39-26 bonus-point win over Harlequins at the Stoop.
Since their 13-10 reverse to Bath on October 30, Rob Baxter’s side has won 11 of 13 games as they aim to go one better than their second-place finish in the competition last term.
Tries from Dave Ewers, Henry Slade, Michele Campagnaro, and two from Aussie speedster Lachie Turner secured the bonus point for Exeter whilst Tim Visser, Nick Evans and Mat Luamanu crossed in vain for the home side.
State of the Aviva Premiership table
It was by no means a do-or-die contest, but both sides knew that a loss tonight would seriously harm their agenda for the remainder of the season. An Exeter win ensured that, after securing a play-off berth last term, they remained in control of their own destiny when it comes to a home semi-final.
Harlequins on the other hand have to hope that Northampton fail to pick up anything from their game with Saracens on Sunday as both sides contest the final position in the top six and European Champions Cup qualification.
Rob Baxter – Man or Magician
You’d have to say the latter, wouldn’t you? There’s only so many plaudits you can give a man, and Baxter has had them heaped upon him for years, but you still feel like it isn’t enough.
Only Leicester have won at the Stoop this year with Saracens, Bath and Northampton all coming unstuck in the shadows of Twickenham but a Chiefs side without Jack Nowell, Thomas Waldron and featuring a new back-row trio gave no indication from minute one, despite conceding the first try, that they were ever leaving with anything less than four points – it turns out they left with all five.
Baxter admitted after the game that Exeter were by no means playing “champagne rugby” but bonus point wins don’t come by accident and his side are becoming a model of consistency even if they aren’t a model of free-flowing rugby.
Another five point win for Chiefs. Two more rounds to go. This bid for a home semi-final is going to go down to the wire.
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) April 14, 2017
Slade at 10?
It is a debate that has become more and more prominent as his career has developed.
The ideal scenario would be for the homegrown Exeter protégé to replicate the levels and skillset shown by Owen Farrell who performs at the highest-level week in week out for club and country operating at either 10 or 12.
Starting at 10 offers Slade the chance to dictate the play to a stronger degree than he would in the centre, but on the flip side, doesn’t allow him the time to assess things which he would get at 12 or 13.
Eddie Jones was present just across the road from where he runs the show and he will have been encouraged by Slade’s display, but he still lacks the consistency and decision-making to force his way into the starting XV for England.
Several kicks went out on the full, including a restart, and Slade will be aware that it is as vital to rid of the mistakes as it is to spark magic into the game like he regularly does.
His try showed he has an eye for the try line and the ability to quickly read a situation, albeit with the luck of a bouncing ball, and he will hope more moments like that lie ahead in a white shirt of a different kind.
British and Irish Lions Watch
Jones may have been the only international coach present in south west London but Warren Gatland will certainly have had a last-minute browse at his potential Lions. With the squad announced on Tuesday, Gatland must be 99.9% sure on his squad to face the All Blacks but nevertheless there was a last chance for players to put themselves in the shop window.
Danny Care, Kyle Sinckler, Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler and Jamie Roberts were all starters for Quins with the latter’s chances looking slim due to the options available to Gatland in the centres.
Care is vying for the third scrum-half slot, a place which he looks to be contesting with his England colleague Ben Youngs, and he provided his usual sparks of energy when he found room in the broken field. By no means was this a match to store in the long-term memory for the 30-year-old and he will have to hope previous performances are enough to make the squad.
The home side’s Aviva Premiership front-row had two England internationals in Marler and the pocket rocket replacement Sinckler, whose ability to inject pace into the place could prove to be his unique trump card as he remains in contention for a spot to New Zealand.
Marler is almost certain to be selected by Gatland and could yet push for a test start, although Saracens Mako Vunipola is probably in possession of that shirt were the first test to be played tomorrow.
In contrast Robshaw, whose England career appears to be entering its twilight phase, looks like he is resigned to a second Lions tour of disappointment. It won’t hurt as much as 2013 when the then England captain had ample opportunity to put forward his case, but injuries banished any hopes of a second Six Nations title with England and they look to have done the same to his Lions ambitions.
🗣 "We created problems, but it's the lack of execution and switching off which has killed us"
🎥 Jamie Roberts following defeat to Exeter pic.twitter.com/oSoYViZpMU
— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) April 14, 2017
Champions Elect? Prem Rugby assessment
Perhaps – but improvement is still needed for Exeter. Friday’s performance probably gets stamped with a B+ which is by no means a bad result, but it is often the A+ sides who lift the trophy.
It’s worth bearing in mind that they were without some of their star players and those additions would strengthen the team further but, at this moment they are perhaps a peg below the Aviva Premiership levels that both Saracens and Wasps can produce.