This is proving a distinctly mixed season for English clubs in Europe but the unbeaten Exeter Chiefs are still flying the flag. In front of the watching national head coach Eddie Jones the visitors had to dig deep in the second-half but survived a strong Sale comeback to collect their third win in three outings in Pool Two and stay firmly in control of their own destiny.
It was a much tighter contest than had seemed likely when Exeter led 22-8 after just 26 one-sided minutes. Despite their injury problems in the second-row – a gap which Sale’s Steve Diamond now accepts the brilliant Fijian Leone Nakarawa will not be filling – the Sharks proved cussed opponents and a 75th-minute converted try from Jonno Ross tested the Chiefs resolve to the limit in front of a baying home crowd.
Exeter were far from perfect but, in their lavender kit, are a mob who take a lot of flooring these days even with 14 men on the field. It also helps to have a quality athlete like Stuart Hogg available to them, even if on this occasion he did not last beyond the first quarter. In his brief stay the Scot created one one-catching try and scored another inside two minutes to supply his team with a handy cushion on a chilly north-west afternoon.
At his best he has an eye for a gap and a turn of pace that few possess and both were on display as he sliced his way out of his own half past a succession of would-be tacklers in the direction of the Sale goalposts. He was collared just short by Tom Curry but the French referee Mathieu Raynal adjudged the England flanker had deliberately killed the ensuing ruck on the line and awarded a penalty try.
With Sale still coming to terms with losing such a key man, the Chiefs struck again after a sliced attempted box kick by Faf De Klerk had fallen into the arms of Jack Nowell. The wing slipped the ball inside to Henry Slade who smartly released Hogg and, following a chip ahead, the full-back was always going to beat Ross to score. He rose groggily to his feet, however, and did not reappear following his head injury assessment, forcing Exeter to bring on the fit-again Olly Woodburn sooner than planned.
A penalty from Joe Simmonds extended the margin to 15-3 but Sale, to their credit, did not fold. If there was an element of good fortune about their first try, which came courtesy of a charged-down Nic White kick which rebounded off Jonny Hill’s lower leg into the hands of the lurking Akker Van der Merwe, it was no less than they deserved. The pressure on the buzzing White was no accident, with the beanpole Bryn Evans regularly used as a potential vertical obstacle, and it helped to stoke the fire in the Sharks’ bellies.
Even the busy Van der Merwe, however, had his hands full opposite the bullocking Luke Cowan-Dickie, whose work-rate was remarkable even by his own high standards. There was a certain inevitability, therefore, when Exeter kicked to the corner, set up a trademark lineout drive and the Cornishman crashed unstoppably over to register his side’s third try in the opening 25 minutes.
Still Sale refused to lie down. They came close to scoring the best try of the day only for the ball to slip from Marland Yarde’s grasp as he rolled over the line and Van der Merwe’s second try, courtesy of an Exeter-style driven lineout, reduced the half-time margin to 22-13.
It still appeared to be a tailor-made situation for the Chiefs but a couple of avoidable misjudgements, including a penalty kick to the corner by Slade which sailed dead, kept the contest alive. When Ben Moon was yellow carded 12 minutes from the end after a succession of collapsed scrums close to his side’s line, the plot thickened and Ross’s close-range try narrowed the gap to two points. A reversed penalty, awarded for a slight late challenge by Alec Hepburn on Rob du Preez, threatened to wreck the visitors’ day but, to their visible delight, they clung on.