According to the 2019/20 Gallagher Premiership table, Tuesday’s meeting between Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs was an encounter between the two best teams in England. The Chiefs came out on top 25-22 at Ashton Gate, opening up an eleven-point lead in the league over their rivals and giving themselves a spring in their step should the two sides face each other in the playoffs. 

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Following their Premiership victory over Sale last Friday at the AJ Bell, it was a much-changes Exeter outfit, so much of the talk (and trolling) after the game online by Devonians – as well as fans across the country – was about how a second-string Chiefs XV could topple the side who were second to them in the table. 

While it would be wrong to label Tuesday’s victors a second-team, there were undoubtedly star names missing; more than ten in truth. 

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Exeter midfielder Henry Slade guests on The Lockdown, the RugbyPass pandemic interview series

Bristol themselves were shy of a few first-choice players, but certainly not as many as Rob Baxter’s side were. 

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It was a close game where Bristol only woke up in the second half, but a lot of praise has been directed at the Chiefs who are now firm favourites to win the league this season and take the title from automatically regelated Saracens. 

What Tuesday did perhaps highlight was that there is no such thing as a second-team at Exeter. Such is the depth that their standard doesn’t dip even with a raft of changes.

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Bristol, meanwhile, will continue to develop with a team that has seen an influx of new faces in recent weeks. Players will be rotated, though, as they already have, and the question remains as to whether they – or any other team in England – have the depth to rival the Chiefs.

Squad rotation is key in such a congested period and Olly Woodburn provided a vivid visualisation as to why that is true against Bristol. Having been the only Exeter player to start all three games in a ten-day period, the winger pulled up with a groin injury in the second half which allowed Ioan Lloyd to score. 

Baxter will know that he will have to continue to rest his players, particularly given their ambitions in the Heineken Champions Cup in September, but he knows a strong performance will come from whatever players he fields.

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