The force is with Exeter on all fronts right now. Already booked in for Saturday’s European Champions Cup final they duly secured their fifth successive Premiership final appearance, courtesy of another hard-edged, physical display to which a shattered Bath ultimately had no answer.
Nothing is ever guaranteed in major finals but it is going to require a mightily resilient team to prevent Exeter picking up at least one piece of silverware over the next fortnight. If Wasps, their domestic final opponents, will have an extra week’s rest before the Twickenham finale they will be facing a team who can outlast just about every opponent these days.
It is not always pretty – hardly a pre-requisite in big knock-out fixtures – but it is most definitely effective. Once their tight forwards have smashed everything in sight and they have notched up a couple of trademark close-quarters tries, they start to look every bit as dominant as the Saracens side who scooped the double last season. With Sarries no longer in contention, a serious opportunity now beckons for Rob Baxter’s tough nuts.
On this occasion there were another two tries for the lock Jonny Hill, who now has seven in seven games in all competitions since the season restarted, while at full-back Stuart Hogg topped a classy performance with a try of his own. By the time the equally excellent Joe Simmonds set up Ollie Devoto for an eye-catching 70th-minute score against his old club, the outcome had been certain for a while.
While the October weather was clear, bright and fresh, it would have felt increasingly dark and stifling from the visitors’ perspective. Bath had perceived their best chance would be to control the set-piece, kick high and often and prey on any mistakes. It was a perfectly valid, if slightly unimaginative plan, with one obvious snag. These days Exeter have good enough players not to panic even when territory and possession are temporarily unavailable.
There was a distinct sense of deja vu and comparisons with the rope-a-dope Toulouse encounter two weeks ago. Once again Exeter soaked up a lot of early pressure, once again the visitors could not quite convert their opportunities. The closest Bath came to a try was in the right corner after Cameron Redpath had cleverly found Ruaridh McConnochie but desperate cover defence just kept the winger out.
By contrast Exeter scored on their first visit to the opposing 22. Alec Hepburn thought he had touched down only for the referee, Luke Pearce, to decide otherwise but from a typical quick tap and go by Luke Cowan-Dickie there was no stopping Hill from crashing over.
Joe Simmonds, as he so often does, curled over a beautiful conversion and it was already clear Exeter would take some knocking over. Before this game they had lost one of their previous 10 first-team fixtures against Bath, who had secured one win in Devon since 2014.
Two Rhys Priestland penalties did allow Bath to fight their way back to 7-6 but it was to prove the briefest of respites. A botched kick-off reception gave Exeter useful field position and, like a large cat toying with an increasingly weary mouse, there was no escaping the inevitable close-range coup de grace, this time administered by the irrepressible Cowan-Dickie.
Bath were rocking and it was a major relief when, with more ominous momentum building, Hill was penalised for a no-arms clear-out on Taulupe Faletau and sent to the sin-bin. Suddenly the challengers had the physical advantage and might have scored had Will Stuart, on his way to the line, not collided with his team-mate Sam Underhill.
Again it was a costly misjudgment. Exeter cleared their lines and more swarming defence allowed them to reach half-time still 14-6 ahead. If there is anything different about them compared with previous seasons it is their ability to raise their intensity levels without the ball at key moments in the contest, softening opponents up for later.
A few of Bath’s forwards were breathing very heavily as they headed for the tunnel at half-time, despite the pace of the game having been slower than it might otherwise have been. Their only chance of escaping lay in scoring in the first five minutes of the second half with Exeter still reduced to 14 men but despite one promising midfield incision by Redpath the breakthrough never came.
It was the cue for Exeter to press the pedal to the metal. A lovely rolling kick by Hogg put them into the opposing 22 and, once again, the lanky second-row Hill did the necessary from a couple of metres out. Even before a scampering Joe Simmonds put Devoto over, Exeter’s minds were already turning towards Racing 92 at Ashton Gate next Saturday.