On Sunday evening, Exeter welcomed Ulster to Sandy Park for their penultimate pool game in this season’s Champions Cup. After an extremely entertaining 80 minutes, the Chiefs ran out 31-19 winners, ending Ulster’s chances of qualifying for the knockout stages.
In the latest installment of the Tim’s Thoughts series, here are the few thoughts I actually managed to jot down while watching the game; on the whole I got far too distracted by the quality of rugby on show.
Summer rugby… in January
January rugby is often more a game for the purists. Poor weather conditions leave pitches in a less-than-ideal state, so games at this time of year are often full of territorial kicking, short passing and frequent physical confrontations between the forward packs. This game however was an exciting affair, with both teams frequently willing to spread the ball and attack from deep. Right from the opening minutes, Ulster were cutting through the Exeter defence and even when the game evened out, it was still full of expansive play throughout. It is games like this that will draw new fans to the sport. I’m sure part of the reason for playing such an open game was to improve the chances of getting a 4 try bonus point, but with a loss ending any chance of progression it would have been understandable if the teams had played a tight game of ball control to ensure the win at all costs.
Making it look easy
My personal highlight of the game was watching the battle on the wing between Jack Nowell and Charles Piutau. A former member of Sir Gordan Tietjens’ All Blacks 7s dynasty and capped 16 times in the 15-a-side format, Piutau’s ability surely had many viewers agreeing with Ugo Monye’s musings as to whether he finds rugby easy. He certainly makes it look easy! From the step to beat Nowell for his 1st try to the collection of Paddy Jackson’s cross-field kicks for his 2nd try and scrum half David Shanahan’s almost-try, he was wowing us every time he got the ball and reminding Premiership fans what they’re missing this year. Nowell is a player who took some time to win me over, but I now consider him England’s best all-round winger and highly likely to make Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions squad. Though he did get stepped for Piutau’s 1st try and was perhaps caught too narrow for his 2nd, Nowell certainly gave as good as he got from the Kiwi, managing a couple of great covering tackles and also stepping him for Michele Campagnaro’s 2nd try. It felt like these two were playing their own game of rugby on the same pitch as the other 28 players. Though Exeter handily won the main game, I’ll call this matchup a draw.
The Italian Job
Italy boss Conor O’Shea must have been licking his lips watching Michele Campagnaro’s performance for the Chiefs. Injury may have limited his impact so far this season but he was making up for lost time with 2 tries and plenty of metres made against Ulster. A strong runner who consistently requires a couple of tacklers to bring him down, he brings a different dimension to an Exeter midfield that already boasts great depth in Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto and Sam Hill. Aged just 23 and with 25 caps to his name already, he is already one of the most impressive players in the Italian squad and will likely be one of the players the Azzuri hope to fill the void when iconic captain Sergio Parisse eventually retires. This is the last year of Campagnaro’s current contract and I’m sure that a few more performances like that for Exeter and Italy will have plenty of teams asking after him.
Do you think I missed anything? Want to give your opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge