The Premiership’s runaway leaders Exeter have effectively booked a home play-off semi-final but an injury to their Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg was a timely reminder nothing can yet be guaranteed. Nor was this a typically energetic and efficient Chiefs display, their five-try win masking a particularly lacklustre first-half effort.
The Premiership leaders partially made up for it after the interval, ending up with a bonus point which makes it all but impossible for them to finish outside the top two. For all the close‑range potency of Luke Cowan‑Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Jonny Hill, however, they will need to be far sharper if they plan to prosper in higher-profile games against quality opposition next month.
The sight of Hogg limping gingerly out of the fray toward the end of the third quarter was another concern for Exeter’s coaching staff with the European Champions Cup quarter-final against Northampton next week looming. The flying Scotsman will be assessed over the next 24 hours with the forwards coach, Rob Hunter, insisting he had been withdrawn as a precaution: “We are being fairly cautious. We won’t take any risks and will see where he is at.”
While Exeter can still subdue the majority of sides purely through brute force, this was one of those days which raised rather more questions than it answered. A callow Gloucester side, with their combative Australian flanker Jordy Reid to the fore, proved far more competitive than many expected but Hunter did not dispute that the Chiefs appeared stuck on uninspired autopilot at times. “We weren’t brilliant and it proved we are human. It’s a good reminder for us. Everyone is talking about the league being a procession but it is not that simple. There will be a lot of teams who will be happy to knock us over.”
The first 40 minutes was comfortably the hosts’ poorest half of rugby since the league’s resumption, with the energy recently shown by the squad’s supposed lesser lights at Bristol and Northampton conspicuously absent. Jack Nowell is still feeling his way back to full fitness on the wing and his team’s collective snap and crackle was rather more evident in the warm-up than the actual contest.
At least the impending nationwide ban on gatherings of more than six people does not yet apply to close-range driven mauls. For all Exeter’s huffing and puffing elsewhere there is no stopping Cowan-Dickie and Simmonds close to the line and when Hill added a third try on the stroke of half-time, with Charlie Beckett also dispatched to the sin-bin, the audible disquiet amongst the home coaches was slightly reduced.
There were more encouraging signs shortly after the restart when Hogg made good ground down the right and quicker ball helped create space on the other side of the field for Dave Ewers to send Ian Whitten over. A fifth try for Jack Maunder, courtesy of an excellent reflex catch by the scrum-half close to the line, made it 33-8 but the final quarter was all about the visitors, the experienced Matt Banahan helping himself to a second try and the flanker Josh Gray completing a fine kick-and-chase score in the right corner.
It could not stop Exeter completing a first home-and-away league double over Gloucester in a decade of trying but Rob Baxter, as he prepares to juggle his resources for Sunday’s trip to Saracens and the subsequent Saints cup tie, will be hoping the real Chiefs re-emerge again soon.