Another week, another crazily fluctuating Premiership contest. If Exeter thought their last-gasp win over Leicester on the season’s opening day was dramatic it had nothing on this final act in which the Chiefs’ Christ Tshiunza clinched a breathless victory for his 14-man side after a resurgent Quins had looked to have burgled an improbable win of their own.
The 20-year-old Tshiunza had already contributed one spectacular galloping try when, with just seconds left, the ball again found him wide on the left. The Welsh international lock still had much to do but sensationally skinned the cover to touch the ball down, only for the referee, Ian Tempest, to ask the television match official to check a pass way back upfield. Happily for the Chiefs, the footage of Stuart Hogg’s offload to Patrick Schickerling was eventually deemed to be “inconclusive” and the hosts duly stayed unbeaten, level with Bristol at the top of the table. Quins’ head coach, Tabai Matson, described the ruling as “frustrating” but his opposite number, Ali Hepher, insisted the officials had been spot on.
Had Exeter lost, mind you, the inquest would have been long and painful. At 31-7 up after 40 minutes there seemed no way they could possibly be overhauled, only for Quins to conjure up one of those Houdini-style recoveries that have become their speciality. The days of teams shutting up shop and quietly closing games out seem to have gone the way of horse-drawn carts.
It was a bizarre day all round, with much of the second half played with uncontested scrums after both Quins hookers were injured. There was also a slightly melancholy feel to the west-country air with Sam Simmonds and potentially Jack Nowell set to leave Devon at the end of the season. Simmonds is off to Montpellier, with Hepher openly confirming the news. “What you’ve heard is what’s happening. It’s a good move, fantastic move for Simmo and his family.”
At least in the shape of Tshiunza and others, the Chiefs have some handy young replacements. Initially Quins could not cope with them and were well off the pace. Joe Marler was forced to withdraw through illness and Marcus Smith’s first contribution of the season was to put the opening kick-off straight out on the full. Chiefs needed no second invitation, Harry Williams storming over for the game’s first try after only three minutes.
The hosts were 17 points up inside a dozen minutes, the scrum-half Stu Townsend sniping over and Joe Simmonds slotting his second conversion to add to a straightforward penalty. The best you could say about Quins was that their light blue change-kit looked nice, although Luke Northmore did come close to a flying try in the left corner which was disallowed for a foot in touch.
Quins also lacked anyone up front with the energy and oomph of Chiefs’ new South African recruit Ruben van Heerden, who was ably abetted by Jonny Gray, Alec Hepburn and Tshiunza. The latter’s first league try for the Chiefs was also a beauty, the big forward bounding free of attempted tackles by Joe Marchant and Tyrone Green to score from almost 30 metres out. Christ – pronounced as in ‘wrist’ – is definitely one to follow.
Despite a relieving five-pointer from Cadan Murley, which belatedly put the visitors on the board, nothing was going right for Quins. Not for the first time an attempted Quins’ backs move broke down and the fly-half Harvey Skinner snapped up the loose ball to race 45 metres and secure his side a try bonus-point before half-time.
At which point the game morphed into something very different. With Danny Care adding some much-needed tempo and Chiefs guilty of wasting a couple of gilt-edged attacking positions, Quins finally relocated some of their usual attacking fluency, yielding two tries in four minutes down the left touchline for Green and the ever-alert Murley.
Hard running and impressive pace then yielded another long-range score finished by Northmore and, suddenly, Quins were clawing at the front door. Another slickly executed midfield play saw Murley send Northmore surging through some modest defence and, suddenly, Quins were ahead 35-31. The England head coach, Eddie Jones, left the ground with a few minutes to go but the most significant action was only just beginning.
Schickerling, low slung and impossible to stop, put Exeter back ahead only for Quins to regain the lead again via a clever cross kick from Smith to Marchant. It looked like being enough but, when it mattered right at the death, Exeter had Christ on their side.