Exeter Chiefs put their Premiership season back on track with emphatic win over Exiles
If Exeter Chiefs' ambitions for the season are to be fulfilled, it was imperative their five-game run without an Aviva Premiership win came to an emphatic end.
It should have been stopped weeks ago. The loss to Sale Sharks was frustrating, but there was also a draw with Bath some six weeks earlier and a narrow loss to Gloucester at Kingsholm before that.
Rob Baxter and his squad kept their nerve as the weeks and months passed. They were playing well, for the most part, and felt the small margins between wins and losses would eventually fall their way.
Such circumstances are normally resolved with one unfortunate opponent finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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On Saturday, it was London Welsh who found themselves on the end of a 47-16 hiding that had been coming for months.
The remarkable thing for Chiefs was how long it took for this performance to truly get going.
Although Chiefs had scored their first try through hooker Jack Yeandle, the scores were still close, 19-9, at the break.
It was only over the course of subsequent touchdowns from Tom Hayes, Damian Welch, Sireli Naqelevuki and Jack Nowell that the Devon side broke the mental shackles that had grown tighter over the space of two difficult months.
The inevitable loss in self-belief from that period was evident during a tentative start that lacked conviction. The Exiles, who are now just three points better off than bottom-club Sale, were equally tense.
Chiefs initially seemed intent on running the ball but opted to hastily kick clear at the first small sign of danger.
Scrum-half Haydn Thomas's pass was thrown too far behind skipper Hayes and they did well to keep possession, but then fly-half Gareth Steenson kicked it away straight into the hands of Welsh full-back Tom Arscott – the brother of Chiefs' Luke.
The former Plymouth Albion man then started a move that led to the first points of the game, drawing a penalty which Gavin Henson kicked through the posts to give the visitors an early lead.
Although Steenson took an immediate chance to level the scores after six minutes' play, another Chiefs infringement allowed Henson to re-establish his side's advantage.
It could have been worse when some indecisive defensive work allowed Welsh wing Nick Scott to get closer to the try line than he should moments later.
His side even won a line-out as Scott looked like being forced out of play near the touchline – his desperate offload to no one was fumbled out of play by a backtracking Chief.
An obstruction infringement allowed the hosts to clear and they were awarded another penalty soon after, which Steenson drove through the posts to bring the sides level again at six apiece.
An outstanding break from Luke Arscott then perhaps took his own team-mates by surprise as he tore through the Welsh defence but failed to find another Chief with his offload once inside the Welsh 22.
It turned out well in the end as the home side were awarded a penalty for Phil MacKenzie's off-the-ball take-out of Thomas. Steenson put his side ahead for the first time in the match at the mid-point of the first half.
The combined penalty count continued to rise steadily, however.
It was only a matter of seconds before Henson prepared to take his third successful kick, only for Steenson to fire back for his fourth in next to no time.
Chiefs did end the opening half the stronger side and, although one drive for the line came up short, a second was finished by Yeandle for a try on his first Premiership start, converted by Steenson.
The momentum stuck into the second half, with Chiefs scoring their second try within four minutes of the restart.
Naqelevuki crashed through to the Exiles' 22 but it took a bit of ingenuity from James Scaysbrook with a missed pass out to Hayes, who went over in the left corner for a try converted by Steenson.
However, space soon opened up for a quick Welsh reply. Henson spotted the opportunity and the two spare men to his left, setting up MacKenzie before adding the conversion.
But once Chiefs responded with a similar try of their own, their general pace, accuracy and confidence increased far beyond the reach of Welsh's capabilities. This time Jason Shoemark showed good awareness to find Luke Arscott, who moved the ball on to replacement Welch on the right for the score. Steenson then converted his side's third try of the day.
Three became four with a bonus point on the hour mark when Naqelevuki skittled the Welsh defence before Steenson converted with another perfectly struck kick.
An excellent day was then complete for Chiefs with a superb individual try for Nowell who smuggled the ball through a near-impossible gap, straight through the middle of the Exiles' defence, setting up an easy conversion for Steenson.
If Chiefs do go on to match or better last season's achievements and qualify for the Heineken Cup again, they may look upon Saturday's victory as a crucial game that turned momentum back in their favour.