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Bristol win effectively ends Exeter's hopes of reaching Premiership play-offs

By PA
(Photo / PA)

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Exeter’s hopes of reaching the Gallagher Premiership play-offs for a seventh-successive season were effectively ended after Bristol beat them 40-33 at Ashton Gate.

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Two losing points means that Exeter still have the tiniest mathematical chance of progressing, but they are four points behind fourth-placed Northampton with just one game left.

Saints or Gloucester can end Exeter’s chances in their games on Saturday, leaving the Chiefs – six times Premiership finalists – facing an early finish to their season for the first time since 2015.

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They fought their way back from 14 points adrift in an 11-try thriller, but wing Toby Fricker’s interception try and a later Luke Morahan score saw Bristol home.

Fricker and Morahan apart, full-back Charles Piutau crossed twice for Bristol, with fly-half Callum Sheedy and centre Alapati Leiua also touching down, while Sheedy kicked four conversions and Ioan Lloyd one.

Exeter went blow for blow through touchdowns for Santiago Grondona, Josh Hodge, James Kenny, Olly Woodburn and Dave EwersJoe Simmonds booted four conversions – but Bristol prevailed through a powerful finish.

Piutau and Morahan returned for Bristol’s final home game of the season, with Leiua, John Afoa and Dave Attwood making their last Ashton Gate appearances before moving to new clubs next term.

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Exeter boss Rob Baxter made four changes to the team beaten by Saracens last time out, including starts for Hodge, Ewers and prop Harry Williams.

The Chiefs dominated early territory, and that looked to have reaped its reward after 11 minutes when Stuart Hogg touched down wide out, but the try was disallowed following a knock-on in build-up play.

Bristol spent almost the entire opening quarter defending, but a combination of aggressive tackling and Exeter errors meant that it remained scoreless.

The home side then struck from their first attack after Exeter skipper Jack Yeandle infringed, with Bristol’s England scrum-half Harry Randall taking a quick penalty and freeing Sheedy on a clear run to the line.

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Sheedy added the conversion in an impressive response to being left out of the Wales squad earlier this week for a three-Test South Africa tour in July.

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It was a score completely against the run of play, but Exeter responded within four minutes after sustained close-range pressure resulted in Grondona crashing over and Simmonds converting.

Back came Bristol, though, and they regained the lead seven minutes before half-time when Piutau weaved his way over to reward impressive work by a fired-up home pack.

Sheedy’s conversion restored a seven-point lead for Bristol, yet whereas defences had dominated the early action, space was now being created, and slick passing saw Exeter draw level again just before half-time as Hodge finished off a smart move and Simmonds converted.

Hodge departed injured early in the second period, before the visitors produced another smart attacking move that saw centre Ian Whitten breach Bristol’s defence, only for it to be ruled out after an earlier late tackle.

And Bristol made the most of it as Piutau breezed across for his second try after 47 minutes, with Sheedy’s conversion again leaving Exeter seven points adrift.

Sheedy carved open Exeter’s defence just five minutes later, before delivering a superb pass to Leiua, who applied a stunning finish, and Sheedy’s conversion left Chiefs floundering.

But Bristol then had substitute Jack Bates sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Exeter number eight Jacques Vermeulen, and they immediately claimed a third try through Kenny that Simmonds converted.

The home side could not cope with 14 players and Exeter struck again on the hour mark through Woodburn, before Simmonds added the extras to make it 28-28.

Exeter, though, followed good with bad when England centre Henry Slade’s pass was intercepted by Fricker just inside his own half and he sprinted clear to score – with Lloyd converting – before Morahan sealed a memorable win six minutes from time.

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