4 penalties from the boot of captain Toby Flood were enough to see of a physical Exeter side 12-9 at Sandy Park. Flood was a perfect 4/4 from the tee whilst his opposite number Northern Irish Gareth Steenson left a last second penalty agonisingly short to leave both himself and his team 3 points off the pace.
This was my first visit to Sandy Park and it has to win the award for most difficult ground to find, despite it looming large over the M5. I came off at Junction 30 and followed a sign to “”Rugby Parking”, that took me past the ground through a small newly built estate and then back past the ground again on the same road before depositing me back at the Junction 30 roundabout. Needing some diesel and a toilet break I ducked into the motorway services and asked for some directions. A pretty simple “Go over the roundabout, up the hill then it’s on your left” was the reply.
Thankfully now in possession of an empty bladder and a full tank, rather than the other way round, I restarted my intrepid journey to find somewhere to park the car. Oh but it were as simple as the shop assistant said! I know some of our Kiwi players find the concept of traffic lights on the Victoria Park roundabout confusing but they have seen nothing until they have attempted to go straight on from the Exeter services! I was stopped on red at my entrance, the traffic to my right was also stopped on red as was the traffic past a large yellow bow where both of us wanted to go, the traffic trying to join at that entrance was also stopped on red. The only people with the green light seemed to be the only road with no one on it. But that’s not the end of it. Eventually the traffic actually on the roundabout was allowed to leave, with the traffic straight in front where I wanted to go moving and also the traffic from my right sweeping in behind it. But when it came to my turn to come on to the roundabout the lane to go straight on was again on red and already queuing back into the yellow traffic box! I was there in plenty of time so decided to be valiant and not block the road, but after seeing the exact same thing repeat 5 minutes later, still waiting to get on to the infernal roundabout I chanced my arm and got myself into the madness. Another lifetime went by and I managed to finally leave the roundabout and find the industrial estate to park. £3 was not too bad for parking, not the usual free street parking I prefer but Exeter City Council seemed determined to stop you from doing that and given the trouble I’d had finding a signed car park less than a mile from the services I didn’t much fancy poking about in the back streets to find where the restrictions ended.
In all the confusion to find the parking I’d got thoroughly lost so after a brief chat with the car park’s charity bucket shaker I was walking in the direction of Sandy Park, which some how I’d managed to get on left. It gets a good reputation, Sandy Park, but I can’t really see why. It’s ruinously expensive to do anything, £22 to stand at pitch level with no elevation, £27 to stand on the cowshed terrace at the side, £43 to sit in the “Grandstand”, £5 for a pasty and the stands look and feel like they’re made out of scaffolding. No wonder they make a profit on those prices!
Anyway back to the match and Tigers played pretty poorly in all honesty. We managed to carve out 2 or 3 very good chances; Mat Tait managing to butcher the simplest chances near the end of the first half before Tom Croft was turned over stretching for the line, ESPN showed he may have got the ball onto the line but the TMO was not called for, and in the second half Castro had try ruled out for a block by fellow prop Logovi’i Mulipola that was pretty marginal, again the option of letting the try stand and checking it on the TMO was not used.
There was a gale blowing into Tigers faces in the first half, holding the high balls up well and for once allowing our chasers the chance to compete for the ball. Despite the wind we had the vast majority of the territory and should have had the wit to break down a determined and stodgy Exeter side. Tigers’ first half points came from Exeter going off side after a Ben Youngs break, Hoani Tui turning in at a scrum and for not rolling away from the ruck whilst Tigers were faffing about going side to side inside the Chiefs’ 22.
The second half was a very drab affair as neither side could break down the other and neither side wanted to risk much it was a nip and tuck game. Tigers had the try from Castro ruled out and that would have probably blown the game open but instead had to settle for another Toby Flood penalty when Exeter were caught off side again. The wind would come back to be Tigers friend again as the last seconds on the clock ticked past and Steenson was lining up a kick to tie the game. It had been awarded after the referee decided it was only Castro not binding in a scum roughly ten meters out and ten meters in from touch. Steenson is said to know more about the winds of Exeter than the Met Office but this time his touch deserted him and he left his kick short.
If only that was the end of it! Tom Croft, perhaps not aware of or not trusting the countdown clock, carried the ball back out into play rather than hoofing it off the end or putting down over the line. The Tigers players piled into the ruck to secure possession and not waste the previous 80 minutes of effort. It was done and Ben Youngs had the ball at the back of the ruck, but again Tigers couldn’t get the damn thing out, this time players scrambling to the ruck blocked Youngs passing and kicking options as he was swallowed up by the Chiefs defence. Again the forwards smashed their way in to retain possession and retain the valuable 4 points but this time they could not. Thankfully referee Wigglesworth decided that rather than holding on or not rolling or going off our feet this was merely a pile up and the game was ended.
Those 4 points, combined with Sunday’s results have pushed us back into 2nd place and a home semi final slot. We never looked like breaking Exeter down enough to secure 4 tries and aren’t in competition with them this season so there point means nothing to us, so whilst that was a dreadful Tigers attacking performance it hasn’t really cost us any points. To beat Toulon, or Saracens or Harlequins, i.e. to win a trophy, surely we have to offer better than that but then again we didn’t against Toulouse and the Awesome Foursome of Youngs-Flood-Allen and Manu remain undefeated domestically.