Henry Slade and Dave Ewers edge Exeter to beat Bath

Bath have signed Finn Russell on a seven-figure salary for next season and this narrow loss in Devon confirmed exactly why they were so keen on winning the fly-half for Scotland. With more creativity and ambition, the Visitors might have gone home at Christmas with their tasting score, but ultimately they lacked a killer finish to prevent the Chiefs from securing a seventh straight victory in this matchup.

To say there was a lack of festive glamor sprinkled on their one-dimensional, box-kick-dominated game plan would be an understatement, and their tactical approach so limited that it would be best to advise Russell not to watch the highlights. In fairness, Johan van Graan’s smothering tactics pushed the relaxed boss’s side to the last, but it’ll be fascinating to see how much license the new playmaker is allowed when the latter finally gets to Rec.

It can only be hoped that the Scotland international can convince his new boss that more flair and innovation would be mutually beneficial. Exeter’s defense coach Omar Mnemen knows Van Gran well from South Africa and believes he will meet Russell somewhere in the middle. “Johan is a good character, he has good values ​​and I think they’ll find a middle ground in which they believe. He brought Finn because he knows they need to evolve. He won’t bring Finn to smother him.”

On this evidence, the Bath supporters will wish Russell parachuted into their division immediately. The nitty gritty details of this frustrating game will be forgotten before Boxing Day sales even begin, and the first half, in particular, was a particularly tough one to watch. Not that bosses will care unnecessarily. They are back in the top half of the Premier League table as Dave Ewers and Henry Slade try to keep their run of success over their West Country rivals going since 2019.

Had Bath secured a win in the end, Exeter could not have complained so loudly. Leading 20-10 entering the final quarter, they allowed Bath to bounce back into the contest with a close range effort from Neil Annette and saw more than a few late frays before the visitors were denied anything more. Lost bonus point.

Bath, who lost a distraught Tom Dunne, their captain, early on played no rugby but increasingly managed to dictate the pace of a game that rarely touched great heights of development. Sam Underhill, fit after a long layoff, enjoyed an energetic hour against the coals and, with his help, frustrated the visitors, squeezing and smothering Exeter with their defensive solidity, power around the edges and good kick chasing.

Dave Ewers celebrates after Exeter hold on to victory. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

The first half was particularly hard work. Not only did the visitors move him in the haul off their half, they opted to kick the box 25 meters from the Exeter try-line, clearly looking to avoid the fast-paced, multi-stage competition that the Chiefs specialize in. For anyone who was brought up on the high-octane attacking game of rugby in Bath in the 1980s, it was disheartening.

He created a stopping run, which the hosts dominated territorially, and their lead in the second half was fully deserved. Although Bath scored the opening try via Joe Kokanasega, thanks to a fine volley by leaping Orlando Bailey wide, the Chiefs forwards were in a purposeful mood and there was nothing to stop the recently prolific Ewers from close range after 16 minutes.

However, Bath’s well-organized defense was credited, as it took a charged penalty on the visitors’ line eight minutes before half-time to put Exeter in the penalty area seat. Slade was the grateful scorer but the orgy of slowball and aerial table tennis continued into the second half. When Cameron Redpath went off injured after 54 minutes, some in the press box were wondering if he was suffering from chronic boredom.

Then again, winning modern professional rugby games is rarely about beauty or grace. Bath’s modus operandi may not unduly stretch the imagination, but they’ve spent long enough time in the league cellars this season to see the value of a spirited performance at this time of year.

In the end, Annette’s attempt wasn’t enough to tip the scales, but at least his team is harder to beat than it was three months ago. “We didn’t fully capitalize on that second half when we probably should have,” admitted their international center Ollie Lawrence. “It’s disappointing but hopefully we’ll be back again against Newcastle next week.”

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