Baxter pleased to earn first victory despite conceding late touchdowns
JOB done. Mission accomplished. Or at least it would be, had getting their first Premiership win merely "out of the way" against Wasps, in their opening home fixture, been the sole aim for Exeter Chiefs before Saturday afternoon.
Two tries from wing Tom James on his home debut, either side of a pivotal score from James Scaysbrook, gave the final 30-26 scoreline some welcome gloss for Chiefs, but a scrappy final quarter which saw England wing Christian Wade and powerhouse flanker Ashley Johnson cross to pull Wasps back to within four points at the whistle removed some of its sheen.
Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter was certainly delighted that the minimum requirement had been achieved; it was no less than they deserved against a team which has taken to threatening far more on paper than grass for some time now.
And it might be said, as Baxter duly did in the immediate aftermath, having what he called "things to work on" is probably no bad thing in these early knockings.
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"We've done the important thing which is to bang the win in, in our first home game," he said. "Now we can look back at the bigger picture and say we've had Wasps at home Northampton away and collected four points, so that's not a bad start.
"We coaches say it all the time that it's nice to win and know you've got plenty to work on, and we have plenty to work on. But we've knocked over a Premiership victory and that's what counts."
Perhaps it was with the heavy opening-day defeat at Northampton in mind that Chiefs appeared desperate to make very early amends against Wasps, but their enthusiasm often got the better of them and the Londoners were swift to exploit any indecision at the breakdown.
In Andy Goode they had a fly-half looking to bounce back from an agonising final kick against Harlequins which did just that off an upright and cost them their first win on the opening weekend. Sandy Park's posts were far more accommodating than those at Twickenham, though, and Wasps soon found themselves six points to the Goode after two long-range penalties inside eight minutes.
Chiefs had enjoyed plenty of possession and were making forward progress, albeit in the face of some fierce tackling by an over-sized defensive line in which back-rowers Johnson and Sam Jones appeared to be working for tackle-related pay. What the home side needed was a point or few on the board to calm everything down a little. Step forward Gareth Steenson.
The cheers that greeted the awarding of a penalty in the 12th minute tell their own story. The Ulsterman has still yet to miss a kick at goal this season, so if the home crowd considers 25 metres out, slightly to the left of the posts as close to a 'gimme' as goal-kicking gets, Steenson only has himself to blame.
The points on the board were all the catalyst Chiefs needed and soon enough the game headed in the only direction they required. James provided immediate confirmation, side-stepping his way past a Wasps tackler before dragging him five metres to the line. It was, as Wasps head coach Dai Young admitted afterwards, "typical Tom" – said with experience of years watching his fellow Welshman while in charge at Cardiff Blues.
It was also a calculated risk, as his current coach acknowledged. But James is one of those players from whom you expect the unexpected and Baxter will hardly regret adding a player studded with that rare ingredient to his squad. Without it, James would not have set off on the unlikely run which ended in his second try in the second half.
"I'm particularly pleased he managed to dot down the first one, because if he hadn't with the glaring overlap he had, there would probably have been a few harsh words in his review," Baxter said, with the smile of a man only half-joking. "But if you go for it and score it's all right, and he certainly went for it with his second try. It was a very important try for us as it really broke the game up."
The fact that things were less definitive than perhaps they should have been in the 20 minutes after James crossed for the second time caused Baxter some consternation.
With Chiefs having gone in 16-12 ahead at half-time – Steenson and Goode adding two penalties each to their earlier efforts – the home side were rewarded for a period of pressure after the break with an unlikely sort of try.
It stemmed from an innocuous hack forward by full-back Phil Dollman, which ended up on the Wasps 22-metre line in the hands of Wade. Or at least it did initially, but when Wade spilled it, Chiefs scrum-half Haydn Thomas held on and, having looked this way and that for a passing option, found it in the shape of Scaysbrook, who had spotted his chance and taken off from mid-field.
There were no Wasps close enough to stop him crashing over and Steenson duly made the score 23-12. When James conjured his second try soon after, it brought the welcome emotions of both relief at a job seemingly done, and joy at a spell so magically woven.
It will lose something in the retelling, but the Wales wing, unpredictable remember, came into the centre to collect a quick tap penalty from Dollman and just took off, haring through a barely-there hole in Wasps' hefty defensive wall all the way to the line.
At 30-12 that should have been that, and ultimately it was, but Wade and Johnson's late stings gave Wasps cause for more hope than they deserved. Chiefs will feel aggrieved about missing out on a bonus point, but as Baxter knows, carrying disappointment from victory is no bad thing. It certainly beats the alternative.