Deadly boot of Steenson helps Exeter Chiefs record first victory in Heineken Cup
Exeter Chiefs reached another landmark in their proud history by capturing their first Heineken Cup victory in a bruising battle in west Wales.
Scrum-half Haydn Thomas also scored the Chiefs' first ever try in European rugby's premier competition to write his name in the club's record books on another day to savour for Exeter's noisy band of travelling supporters.
The win kept alive the Devon side's very slim hopes of reaching the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, although a place in the quarter-finals of the Amlin Cup is a more realistic possibility.
That goes to the third, fourth and fifth best runners-up in the six Heineken Cup pools, and the Chiefs' hopes on that front are likely to be hugely influenced by the back-to-back clashes between their group rivals, and European heavyweights, Clermont Auvergne and Leinster.
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However, no one at Sandy Park is getting too wrapped up in the mathematical possibilities in their group; they are just savouring the wonderful experience of playing rugby at Europe's top table, and the fact the Chiefs are demonstrating they are certainly not out of place in the competition.
They took on a Scarlets side on Saturday containing seven players who had featured in Wales' match-day 23 the previous weekend against Australia at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, with a further two on the replacements' bench, yet made the Welshmen look very ordinary on their own patch, and that despite not playing at their best themselves.
In fact, Exeter were heading for a comfortable victory over their Llanelli-based hosts, who are currently lying in second place in the RaboDirect Pro12 table – ahead of the likes of European Cup winners Leinster and Munster – until the Scarlets, aided by one or two strange decisions from French referee Mathieu Raynal, launched a storming late recovery to come within a whisker of snatching a win to keep their own hopes alive.
That they failed to do so was down to some heroic Exeter defence, and the deadly boot of fly-half Gareth Steenson, who produced an imperious kicking display, slotting all six of his attempts at goal for a personal 17-point haul.
It was a performance that legendary British Lions, Barbarians and Wales fly-half Phil Bennett, who was summarising for BBC Radio Wales, would have certainly approved of.
It must be so nice being an Exeter player, knowing that, whenever your considerable efforts lead to a penalty, you have a man in your team who is always likely to translate that into points and keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Steenson has now kicked 24 of his last 27 shots at goal, but knows he has to keep performing at the top of his game as he is keeping another fine player, Argentina international Ignacio Mieres, kicking his heels on the bench.
Exeter could not have asked for a better start at Parc y Scarlets as they scored a try after only five minutes.
Thomas and Steenson fed Sireli Naqelevuki off the back of an Exeter scrum on halfway and the giant Fijian caused mayhem in Scarlets' midfield, before offloading to full-back Luke Arscott, who cleverly picked his way through the traffic on a surging 25-metre run before finding Thomas on his shoulder, and he crossed for his second try in two games, before reluctantly going off six minutes later with an injury.
Steenson knocked over the conversion, and by the 22-minute mark had added two penalties, to one by Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland, to give Exeter a 13-3 lead.
The two kickers banged over another penalty apiece to leave Exeter 16-6 ahead at the interval, but after Chiefs' lock Damian Welch had come desperately close to scoring a try against his old club early in the second period, British Lions hopeful Priestland slipped as he ran at the Exeter defence, and had to be stretchered off with an Achilles injury.
Steenson (two) and Scarlets' replacement fly-half Aled Thomas added further penalties as Exeter entered the final quarter boasting a nice cushion of points at 22-9 up, but their scrum then started to come under pressure, and referee Raynal took centre stage.
A fourth penalty in quick succession against the Chiefs saw replacement prop Ben Moon "take one for the team" with a yellow card for losing his binding at a five-metre scrum, and while he was off, Raynal awarded Scarlets a penalty try for what he harshly deemed another Chiefs' offence at a close-range scrum, and Thomas' simple conversion got the Welshmen to within striking distance.
Exeter, though, got through the remaining 14 minutes unscathed to round off yet another memorable day for the club, on the back of plenty of other such occasions in recent seasons.