The Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter had spoken of this being a chance to accelerate into the campaign, and his players duly found a way to win thanks to a second-half performance of crushing power and relentlessness. A generous helping of attacking muscle, a ton of committed defending and another brilliant kicking display from Jimmy Gopperth proved insufficient for Wasps to take anything more than a bonus point.
There was a single garish pink Native American headdress visible in the crowd before kick-off, not that anyone present seemed to mind, and the opening 10 minutes was punctuated by a series of fearsome collisions. After the Wasps No 7 Thomas Young stole Exeter’s possession, the towering second row Vaea Fifita nearly went barrelling under the posts. A straightforward penalty saw Gopperth put Wasps in the lead inside five minutes.
The Exeter captain Henry Slade soon replied with a superb penalty, before Wasps’ Josh Bassett was sent to the sin bin by Wayne Barnes for a shoulder to the head of Exeter No 12 Tom Hendrickson. Despite the Chiefs’ numerical advantage, it was the hosts who edged back ahead thanks to another assured Gopperth penalty.
But when Jack Nowell cut inside from the right wing, a slick sequence of passing saw the Exeter No 6 Dave Ewers offer a classy offload to the scrum-half Jack Maunder. Maunder’s own pass sent Slade cantering to the right corner. Slade pulled the tricky conversion wide but that didn’t seem to matter a couple of minutes later when the Argentinian Facundo Cordero scorched past full-back Marcus Watson for the Chiefs’ second.
Wasps redoubled their efforts to smash into contact and were rewarded when a fine Exeter-style drive off a lineout allowed the hooker Dan Frost to flop over. Gopperth converted. By half-time Wasps found themselves 20-15 ahead after another accomplished drive off a lineout saw Thomas Young crash over. Gopperth made it four from four from the tee– and the home fans headed for their half-time pints in upbeat mood.
After Wasps made a mess of the restart, Exeter set the second-half tone by encamping themselves in the hosts’ 22, with Jonny Hill, Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie all trying and failing to get over. When Exeter were awarded a penalty for offside, Cowan-Dickie tried a quick tap, but spilt the ball forward. Exeter kept coming, Wasps kept tackling, in particular a thunderous hit by Jeff Toomaga-Allen that sent a sprinting Cordero flying backwards. Baxter’s men came away with nothing to show for 10 minutes of pressure after some phenomenally committed defending by Wasps.
A fight erupted behind the posts in which Hill lost the shirt off his back, just after Frost, the Wasps hooker, became the second home player to be sent to the sin-bin. Cowan-Dickie was then forced off with a painful-looking injury, which looked potentially serious enough to rule him out of Eddie Jones’s England squad on Monday.
When Hill infringed at the lineout in Exeter’s half, Gopperth punished the Chiefs with his fifth sweetly-struck kick to stretch Wasps’ lead to eight points. Cordero was soon roaring on to his own kick at the other end, only for the Wasps full-back Watson to brilliantly deny him by diving on the ball in goal.
But moments later, Exeter came again, and Sam Simmonds bashed over the line, Slade converted and it was a one-point game. Wasps attacked, but a knock-on allowed Slade to unleash a magnificent touch-finder from deep in his own half. Exeter duly had the lineout, and when Hill crossed in the opposite corner to put the visitors back in front on 67 minutes, it proved enough to snatch a hard-fought victory.