Another game and another defeat for Exeter Chiefs. Granted, this loss will not be viewed in the same light as the recent setbacks in both the Aviva Premiership and European Champions Cup, but a fourth defeat in a row and six games without a win does not make pretty reading for the Sandy Park side.
The Anglo-Welsh Cup is traditionally a competition in which youngsters make their name, but it was a vintage display from Quins’ Nick Evans – who still looks a class act at 37 years old – which proved instrumental in helping the hosts to a deserved victory.
The Kiwi kicked 14 of the hosts’ points and set up a try as he pulled the strings from outside-half, while Aaron Morris, Charlie Walker and Luc Jones scored three fine tries between them.
Young fly-half Joe Simmonds – on as an early replacement for Will Hooley – kicked a penalty and a conversion, while James Short and Elvis Taione dotted down for an experimental Exeter side.
The visitors trailed 11-5 at the break after a physical, all-action first half, and edged themselves into a 15-14 lead after 54 minutes.
But that advantage only lasted seven minutes as the Chiefs’ ill-discipline haunted them in what was a recurrent theme all evening, allowing John Kingston’s Quins to ease away with a crucial victory.
“It is frustrating – it is not how we wanted to start – but more for the performance than the result,” admitted skills coach Ricky Pellow, who takes charge for Anglo-Welsh games.
“I can’t fault the boys for the effort they put in, but we have to be more clinical around that breakdown area.
“We gave away a lot of penalties in our attack and they jackled the ball too, so we have to be clinical there.
“I think the penalty count against us was pretty high, so we have to take the penalties out of the equation and be a lot more clinical.
“We created opportunities and were in there, but in a 20-minute period the momentum swung and Quins took their opportunities and we fell off a little bit. It was pleasing we came back into it but we just could not get within that bonus point range.”
Despite the comfortable nature of the scoreline in favour of the Londoners and Exeter’s ill-discipline – they conceded 16 penalties to Quins’ four – there were positives to be taken back to the South West.
Chief among these was the sheer number of young guns blooded – Simmonds, Jonny Hill, Harry Strong, Stuart Townsend, Billy Keast and Tom Lawday all enjoyed run-outs and looked assured in doing so.
Jack Maunder, whose recent form saw him named captain on what was his first senior start for the club, continues to play with the assurance of a seasoned pro at scrum-half, while Simmonds did not look out of his depth despite being thrown in at the deep end in a bruising, high-tempo encounter.
Some old heads were also welcomed back. Tom Johnson and Ben White both played as if they had a point to prove, while Dave Ewers made his first start since the Premiership final after a knee injury during the summer and appeared to come through unscathed.
The same could not be said of Phil Dollman, who started for the first time after breaking his hand against Saracens but limped off just 31 minutes in with a foot injury.
He was not the only casualty. Hooley was knocked out and subsequently hospitalised following an almighty borderline high tackle by Mat Luamanu.
The Quins No.8 saw yellow for the crunching hit. Some in attendance felt that was lenient, but it could just as easily be argued that Luamanu was hard done by with Hooley ducking into the tackle.
“It was a hell of a knock,” confirmed Pellow. “Looking back at the replay, it was a big old hit and he was going into it.
“I think, whether it was a yellow, red or no penalty at all, it is something for everyone to look at afterwards.
“It was obviously disappointing for Will but Joe came in and stood up and controlled the game well.”
Exe were 3-0 down at this stage, with Hooley himself arguably fortunate to still be on the field after taking out Alofa Alofa without the ball after the winger kicked ahead.
But the visitors were unable to take advantage of their numerical superiority, with Quins’ Morris dotting down in the corner following a beautiful line-break and tidy offload by Walker.
The Chiefs rallied and sent Short over in the corner but, with fireworks exploding in the background, Evans booted a penalty to give Quins a merited half-time lead.
The hosts came out of the blocks quickly, with Morris bungling a simple chance for a second before Evans kicked a routine penalty.
But then the Chiefs rallied. Simmonds kicked a penalty before converting Taione’s pushover score to give Exe a 15-14 lead.
But Taione went from hero to villain as he was then shown the yellow card with 20 minutes left for deliberate offside. Evans kicked the penalty from in front of the sticks to restore Quins’ lead.
And, in a pulsating finale, he offloaded to Walker to finish off a fine move, before Jones scored a well-taken third try to secure the win and leave Exe winless since September 23.