Exeter Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter bemoaned his side’s poor first half showing as they suffered a 22-19 home loss to Sale Sharks on Saturday.
In what was a turgid first half display from the Devonians, they trailed 22-5 after the visitors scored tries through Chris Ashton, Daniel Du Preez and Byron McGuigan.
Phil Dollman claimed Exeter’s only reward in the first half, but after the break the Chiefs were much improved, countering with converted tries from Sam Simmonds and Tom O’Flaherty.
Despite their best efforts, though, the Sharks were able to hold on and claim the victory, which helped lift them to third in the standings, four adrift of the table-topping Chiefs, who maintained pole position thanks to their losing bonus point.
Post-game, Baxter had few complaints about the final scoreline, saying: “I’ve actually said to the lads, I’m not going to come into the media here and make excuses, because we don’t need excuses. Listen, I don’t want to say we we’re good enough to win, because Sale are a very good side.
“In all these things, the winning team doesn’t always get enough credit. Instead, you talk about yourselves and what you did wrong. Sale came here today and they did some very good things in the first half. They got some momentum, some strong carries in, and they were on the front foot for much of it. We simply didn’t deal with that!
“After half time, we did deal with things a lot better. We were more physical, more active, more switched on, but really the game was getting away form us by that stage. I have to give credit to the lads for fighting back like they did, especially to get that important bonus point at the end. As I always say, seasons are built on how you collect points across the season, not just one game, some there were some positives to take from the second half.”
FULL TIME: @ExeterChiefs 19 @SaleSharksRugby 22#SALvEXE pic.twitter.com/p5scjIOBbr
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) January 25, 2020
It was, however, Exeter’s first half performance that did the ultimate damage.
“I’m not making any excuses for that,” continued Baxter. “The team that was put together there, if we had approached the game correctly, had we got our emotional state right at the start of the game, the second half showed what we are capable of doing. We didn’t show anything like that in the first half. If anything, and I don’t mind holding my hand up and saying, I thought we were fortunate with scoreline at half time.
“Had we gone in without that interception try happening, we could easily have ended up winning that game, based on not really playing all that well for 40 minutes. It was that first 40 that really hurt us. But, it’s one of those things. I can sit here and try and find all sorts of reasons for losing, but I’m almost going to refuse to do that because that’s kind of saying there are certain times of the year when a losing bonus point is okay.
“I think we have moved beyond that, that was Ok four or five years ago, but now – especially at home – we set ourselves higher standards than that. No matter what time of year, who we play, what the team is made up of, we want better than today. Great credit to Sale they fought on their line very well, but the flip of that is why didn’t we convert more easily than we normally do.
“That can be down to little things – guys getting off the floor quicker, getting support in there faster, making right decisions, changing direction when we need to, speaking to each other so the right calls are going in. A really good game of rugby is often made up of lots of little pieces of details which the guys are organised with and they drive in. Sadly, we didn’t have that at time today.
“We showed some character in the second half, which I was really pleased with, and I can walk away from this and know there is stuff to work on and talk about over the next two weeks. That said, I also know we have some hard work to do on the training field. These next few weeks will allow us to emotionally and physically re-charge a bit, after which we need to be ready to fly into what is effectively the second half of the season.”
Aside from the defeat, Baxter will also need to assess the extent of the injury to England international Alec Hepburn, who was forced off midway through the second half with a serious ankle injury.
“It looks a pretty decent ankle injury,” said Baxter. “Obviously, we will need to assess that over the coming days, but the initial signs are not great. That said, everyclub has injury issues and it’s the teams who deal with it and get on with things that cope the best. We’ve got Billy Keast ready and raring to go, so we’ll see what happens on that front.”