They are a long way shy of their best – witness the summary ejection here from Europe last weekend – but Exeter, champions of both Europe and England, keep up their defence of the latter title at least. Here they needed an extraordinary implosion by Wasps in the second half to pull away for what ended up a comfortable bonus-point win.
Wasps turned round 13-10 up and were worth at least as much as that, but their miserable run continues, turfed out of Europe themselves a couple of weeks ago and labouring at the wrong end of the table, having been finalists just a few months ago. They played some excellent rugby in the first half, dominating possession and working some bewitching patterns.
Jacob Umaga caused the home defence all kinds of problems with his drifting spriteliness just behind the front line, and Thomas Young did much the same, albeit in more robust style closer to the thunder. Tellingly, though, they never quite made any of it pay, at least not with the hard currency of a try.
Indeed, their only try of the game, on the half-hour, was a gift from Exeter – which was absurd, given their creativity in the first half. Josh Bassett charged down Stuart Hogg’s laboured clearance and followed up to score. Wasps had what seemed a well-overdue lead at that point, which they held to the break.
Then they collapsed, flinging passes to no one – or often, as for Exeter’s bonus-point try, to an opponent – and turning over lineouts and restarts. Exeter claimed that bonus point in the 53nd minute for a 22-13 lead, which then blew out to 43-13 with a further three tries in the last 10 minutes.
“The thing we’re really disappointed with is the way we rolled over,” said Lee Blackett, Wasps’ head coach. “The scoreline cannot end up how it’s just ended up. I was pretty confident going in at half-time. We can’t accept that last 30 minutes.”
Exeter, especially chastened from that home defeat by Leinster last week, are the kind of team who can make another look as if they are rolling over. But they were helped on their way from the start, when Wasps pushed and pushed, then set their own pattern in the fifth minute. From an attacking lineout five metres out, Dan Robson threw a loose pass, which was pounced on by Henry Slade. He set his partner in midfield, Ollie Devoto, away to run the length of the field for the first gift.
Sale 25-22 Gloucester
Sale edged out Gloucester at the AJ Bell Stadium despite a first-half red card for Rob du Preez. Early tries from Faf de Klerk and Arron Reed had put the Sharks in charge, before Du Preez was sent off for a dangerous challenge on Val Rapava-Ruskin.
Jonny May's try and a George Barton penalty kept Gloucester in it, but Marland Yarde's score put 14-man Sale 14 points ahead. Santiago Carreras and Willi Heinz tries levelled matters and the visitors looked poised for an upset, before AJ MacGinty's penalty saw the hosts home.
Newcastle 17-34 Bristol
Bristol rallied from a slow start to regain their 12-point lead at the top of the table with a bonus-point win at Newcastle. The hosts went 10-0 up after Michael Young's try was converted by Toby Flood, who added a penalty before the visitors hit back in style.
Jake Heenan charged over before Max Malins stepped through a static Newcastle defence to score. Luke Morahan added a third try before half-time before Ben Earl weaved through to secure the bonus point. Malins got his second after collecting a deft chip before Kyle Cooper got a consolation for the Falcons.
Exeter scored a fine try on terms of their own a few minutes later, the skill of the modern rugby player to the fore. Luke Cowan-Dickie broke, and Sam Skinner and Harry Williams combined to send Johnny Hill to the corner – front-five forwards all playing like three-quarters in the Devon sunshine. But it was a rare break in the Wasps tide. Umaga landed a couple of penalties in the first half, which, combined with Bassett’s try, opened up a modest lead for the visitors.
Then came the unravelling. In the 50th minute, Exeter stole a Wasps line-out, from which possession Devoto sent over Hogg for their third, before Facundo Cordero intercepted Malakai Fekitoa’s wild pass for that bonus point. Wasps were beaten, their first-half mojo truly evaporated.
Even Umaga started flinging passes into the vortex. Exeter did not need the invitation and scored three more in the last 10 minutes. They turned over a Wasps line-out and maul, and soon Tomas Francis was burrowing over for his first Premiership try. Then Joe Simmonds ghosted through for number six, before Hogg redeemed his earlier howler by belting the ball long from his own 22 and, remarkably, winning the race for its touching down at the other end.
“We couldn’t wait to get back out there,” said Devoto, man of the match, “and right a few wrongs after last week. Both teams were blowing at half-time. We pride ourselves on our fitness and I thought we came through strong.”
They will need that fitness and more, if the swagger of last season is proving elusive this. Bristol look comfortable ahead of them in top spot, while Sale, in third, remain four points behind. Thoughts of a double-double have gone, but back-to-back Premierships would be quite a feat for a team still not quite finding its groove.