GLOUCESTER 18 EXETER CHIEFS 16
THE onslaught was always expected, but when it came, it did not disappoint.
Exeter battered away, phase after phase, edging ever deeper into the Gloucester 22.
The relentless raid was anything but a blitz, and more than once the Cherry and Whites thought they had held out.
But just when the hosts looked primed to pounce on possession, Exeter provided the finish.
After some 23 phases of mostly tight drives, hooker Simon Alcott nipped home for the game’s only try.
Two plays earlier the ball had strayed loose, only for the outstanding James Scaysbrook to recover.
Chance to steal gone, Gloucester could hold out no longer: the try was as deserved for the Chiefs as it was damaging for the Cherry and Whites.
Gareth Steenson’s conversion meant Exeter had posted ten unanswered points in just nine third-quarter minutes to steal the lead.
Gloucester’s response would determine the outcome of the match – but perhaps in the fullness of time it will come to define this season.
Fold, and the Cherry and Whites’ famed resilience under Nigel Davies might have been under scrutiny for the first time.
The reaction should never have been doubted – Gloucester shrugged off the setback, and battered to a win that propels them back into the league’s top-four and sets up an intriguing second half of the season.
Rugby director Davies’ constant calm floods through his team.
Gutsy phase play brought Freddie Burns a shot at goal – but the otherwise pinpoint goal-getter shanked what should have been a straightforward shot.
Even that blow did not hinder the hosts, who won another penalty five minutes later.
Burns stepped up and cut the deficit back to one point, with the scores 15-16.
And when Gloucester raided into Exeter territory again with six minutes left on the clock, the Cherry and Whites won the penalty that decided the contest.
Nerveless Burns potted the points, wrestling Gloucester back to an 18-16 lead.
A sequence of one-out drives in the Exeter 22 kept it that way.
Gloucester’s forwards coach Carl Hogg admitted the reaction to Exeter’s try proved crucial.
“The riposte was excellent, and typical of this side,” admitted the former Scotland back-rower.
“We knew we had to work harder and battle harder than Exeter, otherwise we would lose.
“And the boys showed their resolve, their resilience and their commitment in spades.”
For much of this match Gloucester were nowhere near their potential.
In part Exeter stopped them at source, but also their pre-game plans never came to fruition.
This was Gloucester’s most brutal clash of the season so far – without doubt.
The Cherry and Whites thought they could play around the regimented Chiefs, exploiting Exeter’s narrow defensive approach.
But that did not account for the visitors’ herculean zeal or their pinpoint accuracy.
Rob Baxter’s men were the more aggressive and sharper side on the field in the first half.
The sides turned around level at six apiece, but Gloucester had created the only gilt-edged chance.
The home side’s powerful scrum kept them in the clash – four-straight penalties warding Exeter out of the Gloucester half time and again.
And it was a snapshot steal at the base of another scrum battering that nearly yielded a try.
Akapusi Qera picked Haydn Thomas’ pocket and raced into the Chiefs’ half.
Sione Kalamafoni blasted on, before setting Shane Monahan into the Exeter 22.
Rob Cook’s chip and collect took Gloucester to the Exeter whitewash, and then Jimmy Cowan nipped over.
The All Blacks scrum-half was held up though, and the chance gone.
After the restart Gloucester abandoned their earlier fruitless attempts at playing wide from deep: and rightly so.
Burns’ third penalty edged Gloucester in front as the home side settled.
And only the right-hand post stopped him doubling that lead.
Gloucester quickly recovered and another penalty chance allowed Burns to atone for that miss.
Then came Exeter’s rally, with Steenson’s penalty and Alcott’s try.
Many teams have and will crumble when Exeter steal the lead heading into the final quarter.
But Davies made character his number-one priority on his summer arrival at Kingsholm.
Like many before it, this victory simply cements the restored Gloucester fortitude.
Halfway through the Premiership Gloucester boast a tangible chance of pushing for the play-offs.
What a challenge awaits: to try to convert that opportunity.
GLOUCESTER: Pens: Burns 6 (10, 32, 42, 48, 65, 74).
EXETER CHIEFS: Tries: Alcott (58). Cons: Steenson (58). Pens: Steenson 3 (19, 27, 51).
GLOUCESTER: R Cook, C Sharples, M Tindall, B Twelvetrees, S Monahan, F Burns, J Cowan (D Robson, 74), N Wood (D Murphy, 58), D Dawidiuk (H Edmonds, 51), S Knight, T Savage (W James, 51), J Hamilton (capt), S Kalamafoni, A Qera, B Morgan. Unused: D Chistolini, M Cox, T Molenaar, M Thomas.
EXETER CHIEFS: L Arscott (I Mieres, 70-74), G Camacho, I Whitten, J Shoemark, M Jess, G Steenson, H Thomas, B Sturgess, S Alcott (N Alcott, 62), H Tui (C Rimmer, 61), A Muldowney, J Hanks (T Hayes, 62), D Mumm, J Scaysbrook (capt) (B White, 74), R Baxter. Unused: B Moon, K Barrett, S Naqelevuki.
REFEREE: Llyr ApGeraint Roberts.