Cardiff's internationals are blitzed by scintillating Chiefs performance
ANY thoughts that English clubs have fallen out of love with the Heineken Cup were blown away by Exeter Chiefs' impressive destruction of Cardiff Blues.
Rob Baxter's men may have gone off the boil in the second half, with two yellow cards within the space of a minute contributing to the visitors' fightback.
But the way they set about attacking a side packed with international stars will have made several clubs across Europe sit up and take notice.
The Sandy Park outfit showed in the Premiership last season what a threat they can be with ball in hand. While they beat the Scarlets home and away in their first foray into the top continental competition, they could not reproduce the same form against the European superpowers of Leinster and Clermont Auvergne.
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But Yesterday Exeter attacked from everywhere on the pitch, making countless line breaks and making the household names in the Blues' line-up look second-rate.
The Chiefs played with an intensity, pace and power that Cardiff simply could not live with in the opening 40 minutes.
They had the four-try bonus point in the bag by the half-hour mark, were 36-3 up at the interval and stretched that out to 41-3 when Ian Whitten went in for their sixth try. They scored six in six matches in the competition last term.
But with Whitten being followed to the sin bin by replacement Sireli Naqelevuki, the Blues closed the gap in the second period and crossed for four tries and a bonus point of their own to take something back over the Severn Bridge with them.
In the first half, however, they were second best by a long way.
Dave Ewers, who was again named man of the match, started where he left off against Gloucester the previous Sunday as he carried strongly into the Cardiff midfield. So much so that they started to put two men on him, and he still made ground more often than not.
After an early let-off, when centre Cory Allen came within inches of intercepting a pass and racing in, Exeter stamped their authority on the match.
Fetu'u Vainikolo, making his first start as ex-Cardiff wing Tom James rolled an ankle in training, showed his fancy footwork to open up the defence and linked with Matt Jess before the forwards took over. After several phases, Jason Shoemark helped Tom Johnson cross the line wide on the right, but Gareth Steenson's conversion hit the post.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny slotted a 40-metre penalty for the visitors, but that was to be their only score in the first 54 minutes.
Another good, multi-phase attack from Exeter caught Cardiff offside and Steenson opened his account for the afternoon with the penalty.
The Chiefs turned the screw in a five-minute period midway through the first half, scoring three converted tries to race clear.
After Vainikolo and Johnson let a long kick ahead bounce between them, the England flanker took matters into his own hands and booted the ball clear. Cardiff messed up their own line-out as Damian Welch raced away and second-row partner Dean Mumm broke through the middle of a maul to canter over the line.
Two minutes later, Jess finished off in exemplary fashion, stepping inside the defence from a ruck, with the groundwork having been laid by Phil Dollman and Shoemark.
As if that wasn't enough, Vainikolo capped his full debut with a try as he cut a great angle to dot down behind the posts to secure the bonus point.
Steenson converted all three tries for a 29-3 lead and also added the extras to Ben White's try against his former club, after Dave Lewis had been stopped on the line following patient build-up play.
The Welshmen were stunned at the break and did start to play better early in the second half, hanging on to the ball for several phases without really threatening.
The Chiefs were still dangerous when they went on the attack, as Steenson showed when he stepped inside his man and drew the last defender before putting Whitten over the line.
Steenson's conversion hit the post again, but it seemed only a matter of time before the home side would score once more and stretch their superiority on the scoreboard.
However, they started to go off the boil and gave the Blues a way back in, with scrum-half Lloyd Williams and Robin Copeland both benefiting from some loose play around the breakdown to race clear. Halfpenny converted both.
Whitten went to the cooler for a deliberate knock-on and Naqelevuki followed for a high tackle on the diminutive Harry Robinson and the Chiefs found themselves down to 13 men.
The gaps that were inevitable allowed Alex Cuthbert and fellow winger Robinson to dot down wide out, with Halfpenny converting the latter, as they closed the gap to 41-29 and collected a bonus point.
But with Whitten and Naqelevuki restored to the fray, and before Cardiff hooker Marc Breeze ended the match in the sin bin, Henry Slade made sure of victory as he slotted a penalty in the 72nd minute to stay more than two scores clear.
It was a deserved win and a statement of intent from Baxter's men.