Exeter’s head coach, Rob Baxter, said recently he wants his captain, Don Armand, to commit to the club for the rest of his career – and on this evidence it is not hard to see why. The Zimbabwe-born flanker rolled up his sleeves, puffed out his cheeks and powered over for a late try to seal a gritty bonus-point victory for the Chiefs, who remain on course for a return to the end‑of-season play-offs.
Baxter, however, was far from pleased. Exeter, now level on points with Wasps at the top of the table, have not lost in the Premiership since October but Baxter was fearful his players were beginning to believe their own hype, having won handsomely away to Leicester on their last league outing. Indeed, Sale, who were 22-20 ahead with 15 minutes to go, can consider themselves unfortunate to leave with just a losing bonus point after AJ MacGinty’s flawless kicking performance and another reminder of Denny Solomona’s sharp finishing.
“I can’t be happy with that level of performance and I’ve said that to the players,” Baxter said. “If we think that’s the level of intensity we think we can play at, we’re going to have to shake ourselves up a little bit. We looked like a team that was waiting for an easy score to come and that wasn’t going to happen today. Sale are a decent Premiership side and I don’t think we showed them the respect they deserved and that really bothered me. I’m hoping we’ve had a little bit of a wakeup call.”
A fierce wind – blowing into Exeter’s faces in the first half – made life difficult but it was far from a vintage Chiefs performance. They have had difficulties at home to the Sharks before and when Solomona scorched over for his 10th try in 11 matches the writing was on the wall. By his unique standards Solomona had been enduring a bit of a drought, failing to score in his last two outings but after picking off Stu Townsend’s pass five metres from his own line, he pinned back his ears and dashed down the right.
MacGinty converted for a 13-0 lead after the USA fly-half had notched two penalties, reward for the Sharks’ early dominance, but Exeter’s response was swift. Undeterred by his error, Townsend put Luke Cowan-Dickie into space down the left, and he made ground before the ball was worked to Thomas Waldrom, then Kai Horstmann, who plunged over in the corner. Despite Henry Slade’s missed conversion, it was a welcome score for the Chiefs but two further scrum penalties within MacGinty’s range extended Sale’s lead to 14 points.
Sale, however, were unable to clear their lines from the restart and Exeter were awarded a scrum penalty of their own. Slade kicked to the corner, Armand claimed the lineout and Cowan‑Dickie was bundled over. Slade this time added the extras.
Shortly after the restart, Exeter made their intentions clear, kicking to the corner after being awarded a penalty within Slade’s range but the Chiefs fly-half fizzed the ball wide to the left, first to Ollie Devoto, then to Olly Woodburn who finished off in the corner. Slade continues to show glimpses of his undoubted talent but he seems unable to dictate proceedings as Eddie Jones would so like him to.
Again his attempted conversion was poor and he chose to kick when he had runners outside him soon after. Still his penalty on 50 minutes nosed the Chiefs in front for the first time in the match.
Townsend’s afternoon was getting worse at scrum-half – he had kicked out on the full not long before he was penalised at the breakdown, enabling MacGinty to put the Sharks back ahead, thumping his kick into the teeth of the wind but between the posts.
But with 14 minutes left Armand romped through the middle and stretched out his arm for the decisive score. Slade could not miss the conversion and his sweetly struck penalty late on gave Exeter breathing space before MacGinty’s last-gasp effort to secure a bonus point.
“Our defence was good, our lineout defence was good, and they had to think outside the box,” Sale’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond, said. “I think they thought they could kick to the corner and score every time but we managed to repel them numerous times. So I’m relatively happy, for a loss.”
Dollman; Nowell (Short 78), Whitten, Devoto, Woodburn; Slade, Townsend (Maunder 54); Moon (Rimmer 59), Cowan-Dickie (Yeandle 59), Williams (Francis 59), Lees, Parling (Hill 63), Horstmann (Simmonds 67), Armand (capt), Waldrom
Tries Horstmann, Cowan-Dickie, Woodburn, Armand Cons Slade 2 Pens Slade 2
Haley; Solomona, James, Jennings (Bedlow 57), McGuigan (Charnley 74; MacGinty, Phillips (Mitchell 69); Harrison (Flynn 70), Webber, Aulika (Longbottom 63), Evans (Nott 69), Ostrikov (Pearce 63), Neild, T Curry (B Curry 57), Beaumont (capt)
Tries Solomona Cons MacGinty Pens MacGinty 6