It is a measure of just how far Exeter have come since their promotion seven years ago that after extending their unbeaten Premiership run to 11 matches, with a 14th bonus point of the season, the mood was one of frustration.
A contest shaped by a fierce wind and a spirited Sale side determined not to let their season fade out was settled when the Exeter captain, Don Armand, powered over for his side’s fourth try 14 minutes from time. Sale had led by 14 points in the first half but while Exeter laboured, the facts show only free-wheeling Wasps have scored more points this season.
The frustration of Rob Baxter was born out of a degree of complacency among his players. Last time out in the league they had thumped Leicester at Welford Road and Baxter and Armand will not entertain assumptions the Chiefs will waltz back to Twickenham, having reached the final for the first time in their history last May.
The truth is that they are well placed to do so. They have consolidated their hold on second place and after a week’s break they host Bristol – two of their four remaining matches are at Sandy Park. A top-two finish and a home semi-final is well within their grasp.
“It is all in our control and it’s a wonderful position to be in,” Armand said. “We’re not waiting on results of other teams to see how they do and I think it’s brilliant because we want to be in the top two and when something is in your control it’s a lot easier to find motivation than when you’re relying on other people’s results.
“Last season we lost games where we should have won but against Sale we didn’t just win, we got a bonus point, so I think lessons are definitely learned. It’s a game we’re going to work on, you’ll never get the winning formula unless you are intense every game.”
Armand’s performance was among the high points but, while Exeter were bolstered by their England wing Jack Nowell, this was not a game featuring a glut of returning internationals. Selection for the British & Irish Lions will dominate until mid-April but these sides are more likely to provide tourists for England’s trip to Argentina.
The flanker Armand is chief among them, as is Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade, while for Sale, Denny Solomona again staked a claim, picking up an interception and running 70 metres to score the first try. “He’s a world-class finisher,” said Sale’s director of rugby, Steve Diamond. “He takes his opportunities, he’s a good defender and he’s a bright spark for rugby union.”
Sale led for so much of the match largely because of AJ MacGinty’s kicking – the USA fly-half on target with seven from seven, including the last-gasp penalty that earned them a deserved bonus point. “AJ’s settled in. His kicking was really good and his general play was really good,” Diamond said.
“If we can get our recruitment for next season sorted we’ll complement the young lads with some world-class players. We want to win every game [we have left], why would I experiment? I’ve got a 32-man squad that can beat anybody on its day.”
Exeter 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
Sale 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).
Try Solomona. Con MacGinty. Pens MacGinty 6.
Referee C Maxwell-Keys. Attendance 10,924.