Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter blasted his side’s stupidity after they threw away a 16-5 lead to lose to Aviva Premiership bottom club Sale Sharks on Friday.
It is not very often Baxter lays into his team in public, but it was deserved on this occasion.
Exeter followed a first half when they again failed to take some gilt-edged scoring chances – a recurring theme over the past two months – with an, at times, pretty brainless second-half performance against a side fighting for their top-flight survival.
“The game should have been dead and buried by half-time,” said Baxter. “That was how many chances we blew.
“Credit to the players for the intensity and pace we played, and the ambition we wanted to play with, and it seems a bit strange that being 16-5 up early in the second half was scant reward for what we had done, but then we just didn’t deal very well with some pressure put on us.
“We did some stupid things that annoyed the referee, which I am very disappointed about, and from then on we looked like the side who were fighting relegation.
“We gave up a stupid penalty and a yellow card; and we gave up several penalties when we were in control of things and doing good things, and that is just silly and ridiculous.
“We keep talking about being a team in progression and learning, but the first thing you have got to learn in any sport is not to be stupid, and I thought on Friday we were stupid.
“We almost looked like we felt we were going to win, whatever we did, and the reality is we nearly did, but even at the end, we got two metres from the line and spread ourselves across the pitch, when we should have been chucking bodies into the breakdowns and forcing ourselves across the line.
“The players have got to take responsibility for their actions – both good and bad, because there was a lot of good play out there as well – but we have got to take responsibility for the poor things, because that is how you get better.”
Exeter’s tale of woe was a lengthy one.
In the first half, young wing Jack Nowell spilt the ball with the try line at his mercy, soon followed by hooker Neil Clark throwing a forward pass to Luke Arscott – who had another excellent game but suffered a leg injury late in the match. Clark probably could have scored himself for his first ever Premiership try.
Skipper Tommy Hayes’ decision to take a scrum, followed by a kick to the corner, after being awarded two penalties in quick succession in the red zone when Exeter were leading 6-5 in the first half and there was a simple three points on offer on the first occasion, also took some understanding, especially when the Chiefs lost their own line-out ball.
Kai Horstmann’s yellow card for needlessly handling the ball in a ruck, only seconds after referee Greg Garner had issued the Chiefs with a team warning for giving away too many penalties, was also immensely frustrating.
However, perhaps the most baffling part of Exeter’s night came in the dying seconds when, with giant Sale lock Kearnan Myall sent to the sin bin after conceding a penalty five metres out, reducing their pack to seven men, and with Sharks tight-head prop Tony Buckley struggling with a back injury, stand-in Exeter skipper James Scaysbrook – who I understand is on the verge of signing a new two-year deal with the club this week – inexplicably opted for a tap penalty.
To be fair to Scaysbrook, his ambition almost paid off, but when he tried to pat the ball over his head to make the most of a glaring overlap, and Nowell dotted down, the pass was deemed forward by the television match official.
Sadly, the three wise men who made up the on-the-field officiating team failed to spot that Scaysbrook had been forced to palm the ball on because he was put under pressure by Danny Cipriani, who was a mile offside at the ruck.
It should have been another penalty for Exeter, right under the posts, but instead it became a Sale scrum, Chiefs’ Haydn Thomas went offside, and it was game over.
It is easy to be all doom and gloom after such a game, but there were also plenty of positives for Exeter.
Fiji wing Watisoni Votu scored a try on his Premiership debut, while fly-half Gareth Steenson had another immaculate night with the boot, providing 11 points, and there were a number of good individual performances.
For Sale, former England winger Mark Cueto became the Premiership’s record try scorer, with his 76th touchdown, overtaking another former Sale legend, Steve Hanley, while new signing Dan Braid also got across the line.
The danger for Exeter now is that a season that promised so much just before Christmas will just fizzle out.
Northampton’s surprise home defeat by Gloucester means the Chiefs are still only four points away from the top six, and a potential Heineken Cup place next season, but two of their next three games are away to top-three sides Saracens and Harlequins, who both lost over the weekend, while the other is at home to a London Welsh side fighting for survival.