Exeter Chiefs moved 11 points clear at the Premiership summit after beating title rivals Bristol Bears 25-22 in thrilling fashion at a windswept Ashton Gate.

Bristol stay second and firmly on course for the play-offs, but they were edged out by the favourites for this season’s Premiership silverware after Chiefs prop Billy Keast touched down three minutes from time and Gareth Steenson converted.

Despite Chiefs boss Rob Baxter making 14 changes to his line-up, Exeter displayed enviable squad depth as tries by centre Phil Dollman and scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne helped them surge 15 points clear.

Bristol then wiped out that deficit through quickfire second-half tries from centre Piers O’Conor and wing Luke Morahan, with Callum Sheedy converting both scores and kicking a penalty.

Sheedy’s opposite number Steenson, who finished with 10 points, edged Exeter back in front, only for replacement Ioan Lloyd to claim Bristol’s third try.

An eighth successive Premiership win for Bristol looked likely, yet they were snuffed out by a resilient Exeter side with experienced Steenson controlling tactics superbly.

There is every chance the teams will meet again in the Premiership final at Twickenham on October 24, and another classic beckons if that materialises.

Bristol showed nine changes from the side that beat Gloucester last time out, including a return after injury for O’Conor, while only wing Olly Woodburn remained in Exeter’s line-up following victory over Sale Sharks four days ago.

Bristol, unbeaten in the league since early January, came under early pressure as Exeter dominated in terms of territory even if they did not create any clear-cut chances.

With the wind whipping around Ashton Gate, it tested kickers on both sides, and keeping ball in hand appeared a better option.

Exeter showed exactly why in the 14th minute, moving ahead following a brilliant solo effort by 35-year-old Dollman.

The Welshman, who has played the overwhelming majority of his Chiefs career at full-back, revelled in a rare midfield outing as he beat four defenders to claim an outstanding try that Steenson converted.

Bristol struggled to break out of their own half, and they fell further behind following a sharp Chiefs try that was created by Woodburn’s pace and finished by Scotland international Hidalgo-Clyne on his first Exeter start.

The precision of Exeter’s play in testing conditions was remarkable at times, and Steenson extended their lead by kicking a short-range penalty five minutes before the break.

Bristol were desperate to open their account, and a rare excursion into Exeter’s 22 ended with them gaining a penalty that Sheedy kicked to make it 15-3 at half-time.

Bristol had showed signs of a revival approaching the interval, and although Sheedy hit the post with a 42nd-minute penalty attempt, they forged ahead through a spectacular scoring burst.

O’Conor was the first to touchdown, breaching Exeter’s defence from close range, then Morahan added a second try just three minutes later, with Sheedy converting both to edge Bristol ahead.

It was thrilling rugby as the top-of-the-table clash lived up to its billing despite it being played behind closed doors.

Steenson’s 65th-minute penalty put Exeter back in front, before Lloyd struck for Bristol, yet the Chiefs and Keast won it at the death, ending an absorbing contest.

Elsewhere, Sale claimed their first win since exiting lockdown by emerging emphatic 20-11 winners over Wasps in a Premiership arm wrestle at the Ricoh Arena.

After defeats to Harlequins and Exeter, the Sharks reinforced their title challenge with a commanding display that elevated them above their opponents and into third place.

It was heavy going with few highlights, a blustery wind and spells of rain taking their toll, but Sale surged clear in a productive third quarter with Luke James’ 61st-minute try proving to be the decisive blow.

Fly-half AJ MacGinty had kicked them into a solid lead before James struck as the culmination to a series of drives by a big Sharks pack that battered the home forwards out of contention.

Once again Jack Willis shone in front of England head coach Eddie Jones, but even the 23-year-old flanker’s try-scoring presence could not prevent Wasps from slipping to a first defeat since the break for Covid-19 ended.

Alongside Exeter, Lee Blackett’s men were the Premiership’s form team since the competition resumed and they reverted to their strongest XV in the hope of strengthening their claim to a top-four spot only to hit the buffers.

Aided by a 5-1 penalty count in their favour, an under-strength Sale dominated the opening quarter but only had a MacGinty penalty to show for the reams of territory and possession generated by the hard work of their pack.

Even the efforts of the omnipresent Willis failed to break the Sharks’ stranglehold on the game and in one passage alone he challenged for a kick, won the ball and powered forward through heavy traffic until he was bundled into touch.

A driving maul launched from a line-out reversed the game’s momentum but Sale continued to smother and the danger passed.

Wasps had discovered a tactic that worked for them, however, and they were successful again with the same tool to finally sustain a meaningful attack that ended in a penalty by Jimmy Gopperth.

Tommy Taylor’s illegal poach allowed MacGinty to kick a tricky three points in the conditions but the score was levelled when a ferocious battle on the ground saw Ben Curry penalised with Gopperth on target.

Brad Shields was fully involved in the scramble on the floor but he was temporarily replaced shortly after, while the attack had been made possible by Willis running on to Jacob Umaga’s flat pass and accelerating through a hole.

Sale finished the half with the lead they deserved when MacGinty slotted his third penalty and play resumed after the interval with the familiar sight of their scrum driving Wasps backwards.

The squeeze continued and daylight opened up when MacGinty rewarded the ascendancy of his pack with six additional points as the scrum became a recurring nightmare for the home side.

And with reinforcements arriving from the bench, including World Cup winner Lood de Jager, they bulldozed forward with a series of forward drives that ended with James being sent over by Denny Solomona.

Wasps controlled the remainder of the game and crossed through Willis, but their search for the bonus point fell short when Gopperth missed the conversion.

 

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