For the second week in a row, Exeter Chiefs players and coaches were left to rue what might have been as they came up short against a side in the top four.
Seven days after losing 17-16 at home against Aviva Premiership pacesetters Northampton, Rob Baxter’s men were beaten 27-23 by Bath.
While that continued the club’s poor run against the side from The Rec – with just one win in a dozen attempts – of more concern is their record this term.
In 10 league games against the seven sides above them in the table, Exeter have won just two – Wasps at home and Sale away. However, the Chiefs have not been too far off, taking losing bonus points from five of their eights defeats against those sides.
At the moment, they just don’t seem to be able to come out on top in the close contests. The key moments are going against them, with either a soft try or penalty or a slow start making life difficult.
Unlike the match against the Saints, there was nothing much wrong with the opening 40 minutes against Bath as the Chiefs turned around with a 13-10 lead.
The whole left for Kyle Eastmond to shoot through for his try in the second half, on the other hand, was more of an issue, as was the fact they were unable to convert their late pressure into a scoring chance.
Credit is also due to Bath, who had two moments of individual class for the tries scored by Ollie Devoto and Nick Abendanon. Ian Whitten’s try was pretty good too, but the decisive moments came from the visitors.
Exeter’s early pressure earned them the first score as Gareth Steenson slotted a penalty conceded by visiting flanker Francois Louw.
Opposite number George Ford replied just two minutes later when Dean Mumm was penalised for holding on on the deck.
Neither fly-half would miss a kick at goal all afternoon, which was a fine achievement given the conditions.
The wind had been so strong overnight that the posts had to be welded back together on the eve of the match. Thankfully it had died down in time for the contest, which was watched by a record crowd of 10,745.
Even the most partisan of home supporters had to admire the quality of Devoto’s try as Ford’s dummy got Bath in behind the Chiefs defence, with Eastmond providing the link as his midfield partner went past Phil Dollman and Luke Arscott on his charge to the line.
Ford added the easy extras but the lead was soon reduced by Steenson’s second penalty. After another scything run from youngster Devoto, Exeter won turnover ball and Dollman hacked down field, with Arscott and Matt Jess combining to put enough pressure on Horacio Agulla and Anthony Watson to force a penalty.
That kick took Steenson past the 200-point mark in all competitions this season, and more soon followed.
More pressure from the home side won a penalty which Steenson kicked into the corner. Having won the line-out, the forwards were only prevented from driving across the line illegally. Not to be denied, after Whitten, Dave Lewis and Dave Ewers had tried to power over, Ben White barged his way across the line for his seventh try of the campaign.
Steenson’s conversion gave his side a 13-10 advantage at the break, which became 16-10 soon after the restart after Bath gave away another penalty at a scrum.
While they may have been struggling in the scrums, Bath started to assert their authority in open play midway through the second half as they had long spells of possession to put Exeter under pressure.
As they put the phases together they started to find gaps in the home defence, with Eastmond spotting one to take Mick Young’s pass to go over without a hand being laid on him. Ford added the extras.
If that converted score, which took Bath back in front, will not make for pretty watching when the Exeter players meet back up tomorrow, the visitors’ third try was finished with aplomb.
Working the ball to replacement Abendanon in space, the Clermont Auvergne-bound full-back chipped over the top and beat Haydn Thomas and Arscott to dot down for the score.
Ford’s conversion put Bath two scores clear, which proved crucial as Whitten ghosted through a gap four minutes later to score a try that Steenson converted.
Just as Northampton had done the week before, Exeter upped the pressure late on as they looked for a winning score.
However, unlike the Saints, the Chiefs could not make it count as Bath’s defence stood firm. And when Gavin Henson stole the ball in contact for Ford to clear, Exeter’s best chance had gone.
Instead it was the visitors that ended the game strongly, winning a penalty for Ford to end with 12 points.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Chiefs at Saracens on Sunday. A testing week of training awaits the players as they look to turn things around.
EXETER CHIEFS: Arscott (Slade 64); Jess, Whitten, Dollman, James; Steenson, Lewis (Thomas 62); Moon, Yeandle (L Cowan-Dickie 68), Tui, Mumm, Welch, Johnson, White (Armand 58), Ewers (Horstmann 64). Reps (not used): Rimmer, Brown, Vainikolo
SCORERS: Tries – White, Whitten; Conversions – Steenson (2); Penalties – Steenson (3)
BATH: Watson; Agulla, Devoto (Henson 68), Eastmond, Banahan (Abendanon 51); Ford, Young (Stringer 54); James (Catt 66), Batty (Guinazu 68), Wilson (Perenise 47), Hooper (Day 62), Attwood, Garvey, Louw, Houston (Fa’osiliva 66)
SCORERS: Tries – Devoto, Eastmond, Abendanon; Conversions – Ford (3); Penalties – Ford (2)
Referee: Andrew Small