Leicester Tigers dismantle Exeter Chiefs in bonus-point victory

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Leicester Tigers' Nic Dolly scores a try during their Gallagher Premiership match against Exeter Chiefs, at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium, Leicester. Picture date: Saturday September 18, 2021. - PA
Leicester Tigers' Nic Dolly scores a try during their Gallagher Premiership match against Exeter Chiefs, at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium, Leicester. Picture date: Saturday September 18, 2021. - PA

Leicester Tigers 34 Exeter Chiefs 19

It has been a long time since Welford Road rocked to the booming bass of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. Longer too since this great cathedral of rugby has had a team in which to truly believe.

The weight of history that used to propel Tigers to title after title became a millstone round their necks as the club lost its identity and its fear factor in recent years. Steve Borthwick arrived from England at the start of 2020, first as head coach and then as director of rugby, instigating the type of change that Leon Trotsky would consider excessive. Dozens of players came and went. The coaching staff too was overhauled.

But the upheaval may prove worth the pain as this dismantling of Exeter Chiefs proved. The Tigers faithful lapped it up. “The players are very grateful to our supporters, I think the supporters offered a great atmosphere here today,” Borthwick said. “It was great to have them in our stadium. The players' effort I thought was excellent.”

The Chiefs, missing their Lions contingent and several others, were far from full strength. Even their usual class acts, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell, looked decidedly rusty. But nonetheless rarely have Rob Baxter’s team been so comprehensively beaten in all facets of the game.

In his first game as captain, Ellis Genge led with authority and even his propping partner Dan Cole, playing in his 15th season of Premiership rugby, played with the effervescence of a teenage debutant. In between them Nic Dolly, the Tigers’ fourth choice hooker who was playing for Coventry earlier this year, plundered two late tries in his first Premiership start from picture-perfect mauls that had Borthwick’s fingerprints embedded all over it. The young flanking pair of George Martin and Tommy Reffell were also outstanding on the back foot, where Leicester spent a good portion of the match.

Exeter spent minutes at a time deep inside the Leicester 22 whether kicking to the corner or tapping through hooker Jack Innard. This tactic yielded a score for Don Armand in the first half and a penalty try when Harry Wells was sin-binned for taking down a maul in the second. However, it was a battle that Leicester comprehensively won, especially considering how efficient Exeter usually are in the red zone. “I think it’s partly an off day and it’s partly the guys we’ve got out there having to improve,” Baxter, the director of rugby, said. “It’s not as simple as just saying it’s an off day. It’s not an easy thing to convert, I thought Leicester defended it very well.” The home side pushed the envelope at times but their commitment under Kevin Sinfield, not least when Nemani Nadolo bust a gut to drag Slade into touch.

Then in attack they had George Ford acting as matador in chief, Nadolo busting holes through the Exeter defensive line and then the total assurance of Freddie Steward at full-back. Steward made his England debut in the summer and is guaranteed to accumulate many more caps if he continues to gobble up high balls in this manner. He scored the Tigers’ first try and was always prominent in their best attacks.

Freddie Steward of Leicester Tigers gathers a high ball during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Leicester, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Freddie Steward of Leicester Tigers gathers a high ball during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Leicester, England. - GETTY IMAGES

With the rise of Marcus Smith, there have been legitimate questions around Ford’s future role in the England set-up. Yet behind a dominant pack, there is no fly-half more adept at manipulating defences than Ford with the timing and speed of his passes as he demonstrated in Leicester’s opening try. Having kicked to the corner, Ford probed and prodded for openings. Power runners such as Ellis Genge were fed on the crash, sucking in enough defenders, for Ford to find the opening he need, threading a succulent pass through for Steward to dive over. It was so beautiful that it merited a further round of applause when it was replayed on the big screen.

“George Ford, to me, controlled that game for large parts of it,” Borthwick said. “It was great to see him back fit and performing well as that. You can see by the way he played, the sharpness he had in his game. I think he is only going to get better and better. I watch him on the training field and he is sharp. He controlled that game brilliantly.”

Exeter responded when Joe Simmonds kicked a penalty to within five metres of the try-line. Hooker Innard threw short to Tuima and with the element of surprise allowed Armand to score from the maul.

The crowd were being given plenty to shout about, especially when Nadolo burst through Joe Simmonds tackle and started goose-stepping like David Campese. A combination of Josh Hodge and Tom O’Flaherty just about managed to drag him down, but Tigers kept the ball alive and Ben Youngs fired a long mis-pass for Harry Potter to score in the corner.

Then came the critical juncture of the match. Exeter again kicked deep into Leicester territory and play remained there for a good five minutes as the Tigers absorbed carry after carry. Eventually it looked like the dam had burst when Innard scuttled over but referee Ian Tempest ruled it was a double movement. Almost instantly Leicester scored the third as Ford again engineered an overlap on the right where Steward kicked ahead on the right hand touchline and gained a favourable bounce. Leicester quickly recycled possession to enable centre Matt Scott to put 20-5 up at the break.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the end of the first as Leicester defended their try-line however they could. Eventually they pushed Tempest’s patience too far, awarding a penalty try and a yellow card for Wells. Back to within eight points and with a man advantage, you expected Exeter to ride that momentum. Instead the game slipped from their grasp as Dolly was twice driven over to a rapturous ovation. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne’s injury-time score could not rescue so much as a bonus point for Exeter and did not dampen the full-time roar. Truly, the Tigers have their roar back.

Match details

Leicester Tigers: F Steward; H Potter, M Scott, D Kelly (G Porter, 68), N Nadolo; G Ford (F Burns, 69), B Youngs (J van Poortvliet, 49); E Genge (F van Wyk, 65), N Dolly (T Cowan-Dickie, 74), D Cole (N Leatigaga, 54), H Wells, C Green (E Snyman, 64), G Martin (O Chessum, 64), T Reffell, H Leibenberg

Exeter Chiefs: J Hodge; J Nowell, H Slade, O Devoto, T O’Flaherty; J Simmonds (H Skinner, 50), J Maunder (S Hidalgo-Clyne, 50); A Hepburn (B Moon, 66), J Innard (J Yeandle, 66), H Williams (S Nixon, 66). W Witty, S Lonsdale, J Kirsten, D Armand, R Tuima (Tshiunza 61)

Scoring sequence: 3-0, Ford pen; 8-0 Steward try; 8-5, Armand try; 13-5, Potter try; 18-5, Scott; 20-5, Ford con; 20-12, pen try; 25-12, Dolly try; 27-12, Ford con; 32-12, Dolly try; 34-12 Ford con; 34-17, Hidalgo-Clyne try; 34-19, Skinner con

Referee: I Tempest Attendance: 17,333

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