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29 Jan 2020, Edition - 1660, Wednesday

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Sports

Exeter Chiefs move 11 points clear at top of Premiership by beating Bath

theguardian.com

Joe and Sam Simmonds star for league leaders

Bath had looked likely to boost play-off chances

The champions Exeter moved 11 points clear at the top of the Premiership after Joe Simmonds’ late penalty thwarted Bath 20-18.

The young fly-half booted half of his team’s points, while his older brother – the England No 8 Sam – scored a try, along with the Chiefs lock Jonny Hill.

Bath looked to have done enough for a crucial victory in their play-off push when the Wales international fly-half Rhys Priestland, making his first appearance after injury for two months, converted the replacement Paul Grant’s try 13 minutes from time. Bath had trailed by 11 points 15 minutes earlier, yet they displayed deep reserves of character and commitment to fight back, with Matt Banahan claiming a well-worked try and Freddie Burns kicking two penalties. But ultimately they were denied and even a losing bonus left them four points behind fourth-placed Newcastle and games beginning to run out.

The England head coach, Eddie Jones, looked on as Exeter quickly moved into their impressive close-quarter driving game, which created a platform for Simmonds to kick them ahead through a sixth-minute penalty.

Bath struggled to get going and could find no answer to Exeter’s sustained intensity, with the Chiefs proving masters at keeping possession.

Simmonds sacrificed a kickable penalty to turn the screw by finding touch inside Bath’s 22, and the home side could not escape as the Chiefs patiently put together phase after phase in pursuit of an opening try. And it duly arrived after 23 minutes as a dominant Exeter pack laid siege to Bath’s line and Hill claimed a try that the referee, Wayne Barnes, awarded following confirmation from the television match official, Rowan Kitt.

Simmonds added the conversion to open up a 10-point lead, but Bath then enjoyed the best spell of their half, securing a period of territory and keeping Exeter pinned back, even if some of their attacking play was laboured.

Two Burns penalties in nine minutes cut the gap, though, and Exeter trooped off at half-time with only a 10-6 lead, having seen Bath rewarded for some overdue front-foot rugby led by number eight Taulupe Faletau and flanker Matt Garvey. But Bath were immediately rocked back during a punishing opening nine minutes of the second period as Exeter went through 24 phases of play inside the home 22 before Sam Simmonds touched down from close range and Joe Simmonds converted.

Exeter’s heavy-duty approach had to take a toll and they led by 11 points with 30 minutes of the contest remaining. Bath had to respond quickly and Burns obliged by sending a pinpoint kick rolling into Exeter’s 22 for Banahan to capitalise on by grasping a kind bounce and putting his team back into contention.

The score lifted Bath’s game across the board, and Exeter and, despite Rob Baxter making several changes off the bench, Exeter could not initially respond as Taulupe Faletau’s sharp midfield break ended in a 67th-minute scoring pass to Grant.

Priestland’s conversion edged Bath ahead but Exeter then laid siege to the opposition 22 once more and Simmonds’ late penalty clinched it.

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