There are three months of the season still to go but Leicester remain firmly in the domestic box seat. A quietly impressive victory in Devon has already clinched their place in the playoffs and there was the added bonus of two tries for the former England wing Chris Ashton who is now the joint-highest scorer in Premiership history.
The Tigers have had some lean hunting days in Devon in recent years but there could be no disputing their first win at this venue since 2014. They led for all but the first seven minutes of the contest and were too well organised and strong in defence and at the set pieces for an error-prone Exeter side whose resources continue to be stretched by injuries to key players.
No one is suggesting the outcome would have been different had Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell, Jonny Hill, Stuart Hogg and Sam Skinner all been on the field but the fourth‑placed Chiefs are going to have to find another gear or two if these two teams do end up meeting again in the Premiership playoffs in June. Despite the loss of George Ford, who limped off in the first half with a damaged ankle, Leicester had the answers to almost every West Country question.
The Chiefs did at least try to mount a grandstand finish from 19-0 down but despite enjoying plenty of possession they mostly encountered an east Midlands brick wall. If Steve Borthwick fancies succeeding Eddie Jones as England’s head coach after the 2023 World Cup, the defensive appetite and energy that his side displayed here was another good advertisement for his technical skills and motivational ability.
It also helps to have players as effective as Julián Montoya in and around the breakdown while Ashton, if not the game’s dominant figure, remains as reliable a try-sniffer as ever. Having been thrown a career lifeline by Borthwick after leaving Worcester, he now sits level with Tom Varndell on top of the all-time Premiership list with 92 tries.
“I’ve been wanting to score tries since the age of five, so it would be nice to leave it behind,” Ashton said, admitting he would love to retire with the record safely bagged. “But having spent time at home thinking that was it, I’m just grateful to be back out here playing and enjoying it.”
Ashton, who turns 35 on Tuesday, already had his first try of the day on the board before Exeter had stitched a single phase together. With advantage being played, Ford floated a beautifully floated chip towards the right corner and Ashton barely had to move to gather and touch down for No 91, taking him above Sale’s Mark Cueto.
Against the breeze, Exeter, though, showed the odd promising flash and a hint of Leicester frustration began to surface. Back in December the referee Luke Pearce repeatedly marched Saracens’ Billy Vunipola backwards for dissent and he continued his crusade here, most notably when he punished Dan Kelly for hurling the ball down in frustration. If Chiefs were starting to believe their optimism was about to be abruptly extinguished.
Jacques Vermeulen stuck out an instinctive hand in an effort to make an interception and referee Pearce, having been alerted by his assistants, duly waved a yellow card despite the flanker’s apologies. Suddenly the initiative was back with Leicester and a couple of attacking box kicks from Ben Youngs found space in the home 22. Exeter wriggled out of trouble first time around but were less fortunate when Youngs second crafty chip again bounced higher than Olly Woodburn was expecting and allowed the 6ft 5in Freddie Steward to jump, collect and score a try that further shifted the momentum.
Exeter also allowed an opportunity to slip away just before the interval when Ashton lifted Jack Innard’s legs in the tackle and conceded a very kickable penalty in easy range of the posts. Instead the Chiefs opted to kick to the corner but Dave Ewers, having advanced further than he expected, was held up over the line to keep the Tigers’ line intact.
It was doubly painful for the home side, then, when Ashton seized on a loose pass by Ian Whitten after 46 minutes and outpaced the cover to put his side clear. Ewers and Patrick Schickerling did claw back consolation tries but Exeter may now need to win all four of their remaining games to make the playoffs.
“It was one of those games where we weren’t good enough,” said Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby. “We are definitely in a fight now but the bonus point could be very important.”