Honours all-but even as Exeter Chiefs edge an absolute classic over gritty, five-try Gloucester Rugby
EXETER CHIEFS 40 GLOUCESTER RUGBY 39
STUBBORN Gloucester saved their most thrilling clash of the season until last.
Exeter were desperate for victory to secure a Heineken Cup place for next term.
And Gloucester spent all week saying how much this match meant to them, despite having already tied up a Heineken spot.
Dead rubber my backside.
The Cherry and Whites found themselves 18 points down after as many minutes.
But then Nigel Davies’ men pulled their trademark resilience out of the sun-drenched Devon ether, and turned this game into an absolute belter.
Rugby director Davies feared his side were ‘dead and buried’ at the end of the first quarter – only for Gloucester to produce five tries and a thrill-filled performance.
Davies explained: “I honestly thought we were dead and buried after that first 20 minutes.
“Exeter came at us and there was little we were able to do about it.
“But we rallied and battled hard, and our resilience shone through again.
“Although we didn’t get the win I am pleased with most parts of the overall performance.
“And I am extremely proud of my players this season.”
Locks Dean Mumm and Damian Welch exposed horribly porous Gloucester defence for tries in the first quarter.
But then Dan Robson set Jonny May away for a fine counter-attack score.
Then Freddie Burns and Lua Lokotui conspired to send Charlie Sharples home for a second Gloucester try.
And when Henry Trinder forced an intercept and jinked past two flailing defenders to score Gloucester’s third try, the battle was well and truly on.
Sharples’ loose pass outfoxed Britton and allowed Matt Jess to break, before Robson turned the ball over.
Exeter stole the ball straight back though – only for Trinder to intercept and end a minute of bedlam with a canny try.
Gloucester’s lead only lasted six minutes though, as Exeter punished their scrummage indiscretions to claim a penalty try on the stroke of half-time.
Three Steenson penalties opened the second-half, to put the hosts in command at 34-22.
But then Burns’ half-break sent Rob Cook over on the right flank.
Burns and Steenson then traded penalties as the atmosphere hotted up.
And then Gloucester went for the jugular.
Burns turned down two straightforward penalty shots, kicking to the corner both times.
A not-straight lineout throw looked to have let Exeter off the hook.
But Dan Murphy won a penalty at the scrum – and Gloucester held their nerve and kicked for the corner again.
Exeter could not contain Gloucester’s water-tight driving maul, and then Billy Twelvetrees sent Burns over on the blindside.
Burns’ conversion popped over with the aid of the right post, and Gloucester had a two-point lead with just seven minutes to go.
Exeter came again though, desperate for the victory and that Heineken berth.
Steenson missed a tough penalty attempt – but Twelvetrees could not find touch with his snatched clearance.
The Chiefs fly-half then missed a drop-goal attempt, leaving the home supporters panicking about time running out.
But Exeter had a penalty advantage.
And Steenson made it second-time lucky.
Gloucester still had time to steal the restart, and build one last attack.
But Burns’ drop-goal attempt was ultimately out of his range.
The ball sailed wide and short, and Steenson picked up, to trot into touch and send the home crowd into delirium.
Despite defeat, Gloucester’s recovery is well worthy of praise.
The Cherry and Whites shrugged off a shocking start, to play their part in a battle dripping with drama and high skill.
Their two match points – for five tries and losing by seven or less – secure a fifth-place finish.
Exeter end up sixth and claim that final Heineken Cup spot.
Honours all-but even then – and in the end-of-season sunshine both sets of players and coaches probably deserve a scrumpy.