Exeter Chiefs ready to rumble in top-of-the-table pow-wow

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Second-placed Chiefs go to Gallagher Premiership leaders Bristol on Friday night 12 points behind the Bears with six rounds of the regular season to go.

Since beating the Chiefs 20-7 down at Sandy Park at the start of January, Bristol haven’t looked back.

That victory took the Bears to the top of the Premiership table and they have remained there for the last 10 rounds. 

Defending champions Exeter have been hit-and-miss during that time, the Six Nations having deprived them of some key players.

But in scoring 33 unanswered second-half points in last weekend’s emphatic victory against Wasps, Rob Baxter’s double champions sent out an emphatic statement that you write them off at your peril.

With Bristol having all but secured top spot in the league and the Chiefs still far from certain of a home semi-final – they only lead Sale by four points – the visitors have the greater incentive to do well on Friday night.

It is also hard to see the Chiefs shooting themselves in the foot as badly as they did last time out when they were guilty of conceding 17 turnovers and 19 penalties – stats that will have made Rob Baxter, the most stoical of men, weep.

Changes suits Chiefs

Also, when you look at the team sheets from the last meeting, several of the Bears players who played a starring role that day are missing from Friday’s line-up.

No.8 Nathan Hughes got through a mountain of work and made a match-best 16 carries and winger Ratu Naulago made good ground every time he touched the ball.

Nether of those two are playing, nor half-backs Harry Randall and Callum Sheedy, while Bristol are also missing the quality and threat of Harry Thacker, Ben Earl and Semi Radradra.

With Steven Luatua back to skipper the side on the blindside, that takes the number of returnees in the Bristol ranks to seven, albeit with Luke Morahan and Piers O’Conor swapping jerseys on the wing and in midfield, respectively.

Exeter have half-a-dozen survivors from the home defeat when Bristol scored 13 unanswered points in the second half, but the ones that have come in for the rematch are more than adequate replacements.

Ben Moon and Tomas Francis at prop, for Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams, does not weaken them one bit, while Jonny Gray for Will Witty only makes them stronger. Jacques Vermeulen wears seven instead of Don Armand and, again, the Chiefs do not suffer as a result.

In the backs, Jack Maunder takes on the scrum-half duties whereas it was Sam Hildalgo-Clyne who performed the task down in Devon.

In-form Tom O’Flaherty, one of the Chiefs’ star performers in the Champions Cup loss to Leinster, will frighten Bristol more than Ian Whitten, who played out of position last time around, while Jack Nowell will have the bit between his teeth, in place of Olly Woodburn, in his second game back from a long-term injury.

And as promising a player as Jack Walsh is at full-back, he cannot hold a light yet to Stuart Hogg.

All-in-all the Chiefs look much stronger than three months ago, while Bristol look weaker if anything.

Giving the Bears six points on the handicap (evens, BetVictor) won’t be enough to compensate in our opinion.

Bristol Bears: 15. Charles Piutau, 14. Niyi Adeolokun, 13. Piers O’Conor, 12. Sam Bedlow, 11. Luke Morahan, 10. Max Malins, 9. Andy Uren; 1. Yann Thomas, 2. Bryan Byrne, 3. Kyle Sinckler, 4. Dave Attwood, 5. Chris Vui, 6. Steven Luatua (c), 7. Dan Thomas, 8. Jake Heenan.

Replacements: 16. Will Capon, 17. Jake Woolmore, 18. John Afoa, 19. Joe Joyce, 20. Fitz Harding, 21. Tom Kessell, 22. Ioan Lloyd, 23. Alapati Leiua

Exeter Chiefs: 15. Stuart Hogg, 14. Jack Nowell, 13. Henry Slade, 12. Ollie Devoto, 11. Tom O’Flaherty, 10. Joe Simmonds (c), 9. Jack Maunder; 1. Ben Moon, 2. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3. Tomas Francis, 4. Jonny Gray, 5. Jonny Hill, 6. Sam Skinner, 7. Jacques Vermeulen, 8. Sam Simmonds.

Replacements: 16. Jack Yeandle, 17. Alec Hepburn, 18. Harry Williams, 19. Sean Lonsdale, 20. Richard Capstick, 21. Stu Townsend, 22. Harvey Skinner, 23. Ian Whitten

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