Exeter Chiefs rue missed chance again as Bath inflict LV= Cup loss
Exeter Chiefs were left kicking themselves all the way back down the M5 to Devon as missed chances once again cost them dear against Westcountry rivals Bath in the LV= Cup.
On so many occasions in recent weeks, the Chiefs have been left to rue what could have been, because of their failure to get over the whitewash.
In his programme notes, Bath head coach Gary Gold described the Chiefs as one of the best attacking sides in the Aviva Premiership, but that has not been borne out by the try-scoring statistics in the past couple of months.
Exeter have scored only four touchdowns in their last six matches – none of which they have won, and even though they have faced some of the top teams in Europe in that run of games, it is a cause for concern.
However, the Chiefs are playing some excellent rugby and are at least creating those scoring chances, and when they do start converting them, someone is in for an almighty thrashing. Hopefully for them, Sale Sharks, when their Premiership programme resumes on February 8!
Despite Saturday's 16-6 setback, which means Exeter are yet to beat Bath in eight league and cup matches since the Chiefs arrived in the top flight in 2010, and in any competitive fixture since 1978, there were a heap of positives for head coach Rob Baxter to take out of the game.
With a line-up almost thrown together during the week, and containing none of the starting XV from the previous Saturday's Heineken Cup clash with Leinster, they totally outplayed, in the first half, a strong Bath match-day 23 featuring ten of the players who were involved in the 12-12 post-Christmas Premiership draw at Sandy Park.
They could have been out of sight by the interval, rather than tied at 6-6 after two penalties apiece by respective fly-halves Tom Heathcote and Henry Slade, with a Damian Welch try ruled out for a marginally forward pass one of several chances that went begging.
Chiefs' England Under-20 trio of Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Sam Hill all had outstanding games, particularly the latter duo.
Cowan-Dickie was making his first Chiefs' start as a hooker – the England selectors are keen to convert him from a prop – and take out the problems he had with his line-out throwing (which will take time to get right with practice), he had so much to be proud of.
Due to Cowan-Dickie's line-out problems, 19-year-old inside centre Hill just shaded it for me as Chiefs' man of the match, with his ability to break the gain line matched by his very strong defence.
Kai Horstmann made his Exeter debut after five months out with a hamstring injury, and did very well to get through the whole 80 minutes, with a performance that showed that he will provide valuable competition for Richie Baxter for the No.8 shirt over the remaining three months of the campaign, while winger Josh Tatupu and flanker Ben White also got in plenty of game-time following their recent long injury lay-offs.
Baxter also seems to have unearthed another gem in Fiji flyer Watisoni Votu, who did enough on Saturday to cause great excitement among Chiefs' followers at what the future holds. One sizzling 35-metre run in the second half will have been noted by rival Premiership coaches, while his work-rate was also impressive.
There were notable performances by other Chiefs players as well, and all those positives should have added up to an Exeter victory, but, missed chances aside, the main reason they did not was former Ireland scrum-half Peter Stringer, who only joined Bath last Monday as short-term injury cover.
The 98-cap 35-year-old came off the bench just before half-time, and then transformed the game with his second-half performance.
He finished off two catch-and-drive line-outs (where Exeter-born Bath skipper Stuart Hooper had a great game) in the space of four minutes (57 and 61) to turn 6-6 into 16-6, but it was his general all-round play that was so impressive.
Harlequins' 23-6 victory over London Welsh means Exeter must now beat Northampton Saints at home next Saturday (6.30pm) in their final Pool One match if they are to stand any chance of reaching the LV= Cup semi-finals.
However, they will have to do it without their England Under-20 contingent, if they are selected to face Scotland at Brickfields on Friday night.