getting close: Exeter Chiefs captain Tommy Hayes leads his team out of the tunnel and past the Championship trophy on Wednesday night
CAPTAIN Tommy Hayes paid tribute to Exeter Chiefs' supporters after the fans roared the club to victory against Bristol.
A record crowd of 10,021 packed Sandy Park on Wednesday night to see the Chiefs win 9-6 in a tense first leg of the Championship play-off final.
Hayes was amazed by the atmosphere the crowd generated and hopes they will make as much noise as they can next week in the away leg of the final.
The home players got a great ovation when they ran on to the pitch and all three of Gareth Steenson's penalty kicks were cheered to the rafters.
"It was a massive atmosphere, I have never seen anything like it here before," said Hayes, whose wife was still waiting to give birth to their first child yesterday.
"It's great playing in front of crowds like that, it's great having an atmosphere like that and long may it continue."
Exeter will take a slender three-point lead to the Memorial Ground next week and Hayes said the players never thought they would have much of a cushion.
As the two games between the clubs during the regular season ended in them being tied on aggregate after two away wins, the Irish lock thinks the sides are evenly matched.
"It's a slender lead, but we always knew it was going to be a two-game fixture," he said.
"It's only half-time right now and we know we've got our work cut out again next week at Bristol.
"We knew we weren't going to be setting any world records on Wednesday night, but it's a positive start for us and something we can take into next week.
"I didn't realise until someone had said to me in the week that the aggregate score between our two games this season was 51-51, so we are two evenly balanced teams.
"It was never going to be a runaway score for anyone. It was massively tough, there were big tackles coming in from both sides and hopefully it was a good game for the crowd to watch."
Hayes and his teammates have come in for criticism in some quarters for not taking the points when they were on offer with penalties in Bristol's 22 on Wednesday evening.
Instead the skipper asked Steenson to put the ball in the corner and give the forwards a chance to try to force their way over the line for a try.
Although they were denied, Hayes said the players kept calm and Steenson kicked his third penalty late on to secure the win.
"Steeno has been doing the business for us all year and so has Danny (Gray) when he's been called upon," said Hayes.
"We didn't panic by any means. We were getting into positions to score, but Bristol are a quality side and it wasn't going to be easy to make every chance we had count."
Hayes and his teammates will now use the memory of their 35-26 win in Bristol earlier this season to spur them on to the win that would secure promotion next week.
He said: "People have asked if it is the hard way to do things having the home game first, but then you can say 'are they under pressure to be at home next week?'."
"You can argue both ways, but we have to concentrate on the game and play some rugby.
"You have to take it as a positive that we have won up there this year.
"But the games that have gone so far don't really count for anything — it is just these two games that matter. But we will definitely take some confidence out of the fact we did beat them up there."