If you were a neutral going into this weekend of fixtures, this would be the one you would target first. A top of the table clash between a rebounding Chiefs side and an in-form Bears team prowling around for that top space. If each side didn't already feel the pressure, an onlooking Eddie Jones turned up in the cold to look over some key figures who you'd expect would be looking to transition into the England setup. How did it go down?
Time to get physical
If you wanted one word to describe Exeter Chiefs over the last two years, it would be physicality. They bully teams up front, driving them into their own stands off of the maul and exploiting the narrowness of a 5m defensive line. However, just as Wasps did before them, Bristol flipped that stereotype. Exeter were beaten up all game by big ball carriers and aggressive front rowers; Hughes and Sinckler in particular put in huge shifts with Hughes being an ever-present s***house in each ruck, and Sinckler dominating at scrum time. It's unfortunate, but Simmonds was dwarfed by his opposite number and seemed to be in the pocket all game by that Bristol back row; with Wasps approaching their match-up with a similar, huge back row, perhaps coaches have identified a key weakness? Bristol were hitting them so hard, that the Exeter backs looked uncharacteristically erratic, with Whitten throwing some howlers and Joe Simmonds getting smashed for being indecisive. It'll be very interesting to see how Exeter rebound from this one...
Another breakthrough performance?
We have had some real star-making performances this weekend with Adam Radwan putting in a masterclass against Jonny May, and Paolo Odogwu putting in the performance of the season. I know Harry Randall is a quality player, we've seen him put in cracking performances with the England Under 20s previously and he's even put in some solid shifts over the last two seasons... But this was the game that really proved his potential. He was by far the best player on the pitch, hitting well above his weight and creating countless opportunities for his forward, and backs to exploit. He's often type-casted as this small, diminutive scrum half but he's really not that. He's high tempo, he's abrasive, he's far more in the Faf De Klerk mould than the Dupont camp. He's only missed one tackle all competition, his box kicking is consistently excellent, he is happy to snipe through by himself and is confident at taking on anyone in a footwork contest. Topsy Ojo predicted it in the first few minutes that his high tempo and frenetic breakdown distribution was going to cause problems for Exeter's heavier forwards and it did! All in front of Eddie Jones too, what a performance...
Not more ref bashing!
I know there is a lot to say about the contest between both sides outside of the decisions made by the referee, but I do feel this game was absolutely bogged down by constant whistle blowing of Karl Dickson. Usually a pretty consistent Premiership-level ref, Dickson just wouldn't let this game flow and seemed a bit petulant when it came to scrum time. Despite the hype behind this game and the connotations along with it, the end result was a boring penalty fest that was almost unwatchable at times. I couldn't understand the scrum interpretation at all, Dickson wanted to ping it even if the ball had left the back of the scrum. I'm not saying his decisions weren't correct, but I did feel that they were unnecessary. I've never understood yellow carding two props either; it's not solving the issue, it's creating even more issues for the next scrum, perhaps just force the scrum half to recycle faster. He was done no favours by Bristol's destruction of Exeter's set piece, but I did feel that this game was yet another example of Rugby Union being a little hard to watch over the last year due to time-wasting, pedantic penalty calls and constant breaks in play; this is not American Football.
Kyle Sinckler: Caused massive problems at scrum time, carried well and put in some good hits around the fringes.
Harry Randall: Obvious MOTM and we've gushed about him enough at this point...
Nathan Hughes: Becoming a real handful EVERY game. Despite putting on more bulk, he seems fitter and more active around the park.
Callum Sheedy: Controlled the game expertly well and during a weekend where most Fly-Half's floundered in the final 20 minutes, he didn't put a foot wrong all match.
Joe Simmonds: Might seem a little harsh as you couldn't doubt his effort. Got smashed on a couple of occasions, couldn't win the territory battle and his backline never got into gear.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne: Completely outplayed from start to finish by his opposite number. Had little to no impact all game.
Harry Williams: Uncharacteristically eaten at scrum time, yellow carded for his efforts and didn't really add much around the fringes.
Photo Copyright Credit: Bristol Post 2021