Gloucester v Exeter: Common sense key to winning top-four spot
GLOUCESTER 18 EXETER CHIEFS 16
WHAT started with a swashbuckle was finished with a sledgehammer.
Gloucester wanted to thrill a sell-out Kingsholm crowd in their Aviva Premiership clash on Saturday and turn this into a battle of style over grit.
The conditions and the resolve of the visitors dashed those Cherry and Whites hopes – but still the hosts prevailed.
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Instead this became a victory for common sense, and another feather in Nigel Davies' cap too.
No individual in a Gloucester shirt excelled beyond the rest – potentially all will play better individually this term.
But under rugby director Davies such problems are negotiable.
Gloucester's systems, methods and mindsets can always override a certain level of imprecision.
The Kingsholm men want to be far more than successful simply because the sum trumps the parts.
And yet they still realise just how vital that commodity is.
Their desperation to entertain is palpable, but they know it must not become all-consuming.
Attack-minded Gloucester had needed no second invitation to expand their front-foot approach in the victory double over London Irish.
Trying to build extra width against the struggling Exiles in the Amlin Challenge Cup was a calculated risk.
Daring that same strategy against granite-hewn Exeter very nearly proved one gamble too far.
But Davies' side have an increasing ability to shift their approach when and where necessary.
Without such shrewdness on Saturday, they would have lost this game, no doubt.
Gloucester had required 20 unanswered points in the last 25 minutes at London Irish two weeks ago to turn a 22-9 deficit on its head.
When the craved wide play threatened to come up short in Reading, Gloucester tightened up and swept Irish aside with brutal bludgeon.
The Cherry and Whites broke Irish's spirit at the Madejski Stadium, so little can be drawn from last weekend's 47-3 Kingsholm hammering.
Gloucester's attacking ambition is hugely admirable, and long may they battle to find that desired fluency, provided they keep fending off that fiendish front-foot desperation and pare things back when required.
For the first half-hour Gloucester tried to punish Exeter's narrow defensive strategy by raiding out wide from deep.
It played into the rugged visitors' hands, who offer that space then shut it down.
Gloucester were being overwhelmed in territory and possession, with only their dominant scrum denying Exeter some choice attacking platforms.
As soon as the Cherry and Whites realised, they recalibrated.
Freddie Burns started peppering smart line-kicks in behind the Chiefs.
And then Jimmy Cowan was held up over the try-line.
Akapusi Qera picked Haydn Thomas' pocket at the scrum base, Sione Kalamafoni charged down the left flank, and Shane Monahan carved into the Exeter 22.
Rob Cook's clever chip and collect dragged Gloucester to the cusp of the whitewash, before Cowan pounced, without success.
No reward – but that was step one towards victory.
Step two was the reaction to Exeter's try, the game's sole score.
Simon Alcott's finish decided the outcome – it snapped Gloucester back into focus.
Where many would have folded, Gloucester struck back once again and outmuscled the relentless Chiefs in the closing stages.
This Exeter side attack straight through the middle, in wave after wave of direct, uncompromising drives.
Hooker Alcott finished his try from two yards and in isolation that would seem unremarkable.
But Alcott scored on phase number 23 of the move, testament to Exeter's regimented and dogged approach.
More than once en route to that try, Gloucester thought they had stolen the ball.
But every time they came close, Exeter regained both possession and composure.
The Kingsholm men boast an impressive calm themselves, though, clearly filtering through from their savvy and unruffled rugby director.
And just when Exeter thought they could set out a stalemate finish, Gloucester struck back.
Burns inexplicably shanked a straightforward penalty just two minutes after the Exeter try.
But even that could not dislodge Gloucester's mental fortitude.
The Cherry and Whites attacked again, and their patience was rewarded with another penalty.
This time Burns delivered, to leave the home side trailing 16-15 with 15 minutes to play.
By this time all notion of finishing with a flourish had been rightly set aside.
Gloucester battled back into the Exeter 22, determined to set camp until full-time.
At times there was certainly a tempter of pushing for a try.
But in the end Gloucester were relieved to receive a penalty, and an opportunity for Burns to seal the deal.
The 22-year-old duly delivered, but even then six minutes remained and Gloucester could not ease off.
Instead the Cherry and Whites did exactly what Exeter had in battering to their try – Davies' men just ground through pick-and-go and one-out drives as though rugby offers nothing else.
Even the backs got in on the act, Billy Twelvetrees and Mike Tindall taking short balls to keep the play in the Exeter half.
One false move could have gifted Exeter a penalty, but Gloucester remained impressively precise – right up until the last play of the game.
Exeter knew they had to keep the ball alive and attack from their own 22.
But on the second phase they knocked on, and that was that.
Not half as pretty as they wanted, but in the fullness of time and this season's greater context, this win could prove among the most important.
Gloucester's Christmas present is a top-four Premiership berth.
Whatever the ingenuity, they must appreciate that superlative industry remains the cornerstone.
EXETER CHIEFS: L Arscott (I Mieres, 70-74), G Camacho, I Whitten, J Shoemark, M Jess, G Steenson, H Thomas, B Sturgess, S Alcott (N Alcott, 62), H Tui (C Rimmer, 61), A Muldowney, J Hanks (T Hayes, 62), D Mumm, J Scaysbrook (capt) (B White, 74), R Baxter. Unused: B Moon, K Barrett, S Naqelevuki.
REFEREE: Llyr ApGeraint Roberts