Stuart Hogg’s late try helps Exeter recover from Bristol fightback

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After unveiling a new stand here Exeter showed the good and bad of their game before holding on for their third home league win of the season.

First-half tries from the wing Tom O’Flaherty and lock Jonny Hill and almost total dominance of possession gave Exeter a 12-3 lead with 10 minutes left but it should have been double that.

Then the game was turned on its head when the Bristol replacement Henry Purdy intercepted Joe Simmonds’s pass on the halfway line and went in under the posts. Bristol could hardly believe their luck – they had hardly landed a punch were still in with a chance.

Exeter had not scored since Hill’s effort on 31 minutes but set up camp on the Bristol line and Joe Simmonds’s next long pass found its target, Stuart Hogg scooting over to settle it.

Exeter played with an intensity and zip that has not always been evident this season and may just have turned the corner with the Premiership season approaching the halfway point.

Frustratingly, they lost a bit of that in the second half and were not able to put the game to bed until Hogg’s score.

They denied Bristol possession and Pat Lam’s crew look a shadow of the side who topped the table in the regular campaign last season before imploding in the semi-final against Harlequins.

They lost their full-back, Charles Piutau, after 24 minutes to injury, making them reshuffle the back three and at the end they had hooker Harry Thacker on the wing.

The Bristol lineout did not function again and for the home side Hogg and Henry Slade purred while Hill showed how much he will be missed when he moves to Sale next season.

The East Stand is not quite finished but it was open for business as Sandy Park hosted its record crowd. Once it is completed capacity will be about 16,000 and the attendance of 14,100 beats even 2015 World Cup matches.

The team have looked in need of some renovation of their own with their patchy form, which left them in a clutch of teams clinging on to Leicester’s coattails. They had Christmas week off but before that they were comfortably second-best to Glasgow in a 22-7 Champions Cup defeat.

Bristol had barely got over their indigestion on Boxing Day when Leicester beat them 28-26 with an injury-time try. That was their third league defeat on the spin and they were without a league victory since 6 November.

The honour of scoring the first try in the shadow of the new stand fell to O’Flaherty but it was made by his opposite wing, Jack Nowell. Nowell came off his flank, after Hill had won a lineout, and popped up in midfield for the ball before kicking it through to the 22. Hogg picked up without breaking stride and he put O’Flaherty over.

On half-hour Exeter went back to type for their second try with Hill taking two tacklers with him over the line after drives from Dave Ewers and Sam Simmonds.

It was only 12-3 but it seemed like a chasm with Exeter having more than three-quarters of the ball in the first period.

When Bristol did make it into the opposition 22, after 50 minutes, Exeter kept them out and Nowell turned the ball over on his own tryline to frustrate the visitors even more.

Slade then dived in for an interception on the Bristol line leaving the Bears centre Semi Radradra free to rush up field in another glimmer of hope for before the move broke down when the Fijian ignored his support runners.

Purdy opened the possibility of an away win before Hogg slammed the door shut.

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Covid forces Bath to postpone London Irish trip

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Bath’s Premiership match at London Irish tomorrow has been called off after the club returned more Covid positive test results. It follows the scrapping of Bath’s Premiership Rugby Cup tie against Exeter on Wednesday after a number of players were ruled out. A Premiership Rugby spokesperson said: “Our priority is the health and safety of everyone involved with Bath Rugby and London Irish so the decision has been made to cancel the match. We will give the clubs any support they need and wish everyone affected a full and speedy recovery. Neither Premiership Rugby nor the club will be naming any of the players or staff involved and we’d ask everyone to respect their privacy.” PA Media

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