A festive cracker this was definitely not but a relieved Exeter will not particularly care. The Chiefs are back up into the top half of the Premiership table and the finer details of this underwhelming game will soon be forgotten. Bath have now failed to beat their Devon-based rivals in seven attempts dating back to 2019 and tries for Dave Ewers and Henry Slade have maintained that one-sided trend.
Had Bath nicked a win right at the end, though, Exeter could not have complained too loudly. Having led 20-10 entering the final quarter, they allowed Bath back into the contest via a close-range try from Neil Annett and endured more than a few late jitters before a last-gasp turnover on their own line denied the visitors anything more than a losing bonus point.
Bath, who lost their dazed captain Tom Dunn early on, did not play much rugby but they did increasingly manage to dictate the pace of a game which rarely touched great heights of sophistication. Sam Underhill, back fit again after a lengthy lay-off, enjoyed an energetic hour back at the coalface and, with his help, the visitors frustrated, squeezed and suffocated an Exeter side with their defensive solidity, strength around the fringes and a decent kick chase.
The result was very much a game for the purists. Bath have just signed the master showman Finn Russell on a reported seven-figure salary to take them to another level next season but you can only hope the Scottish international persuades the management that his new side’s gameplan would benefit from a little more flair and innovation.
The first half was particularly hard work. Not content with hoofing it into the clouds from their own half, the visitors were still opting to box kick 25 metres from the Exeter tryline, clearly averse to the kind of fast-paced, multi-phase contest in which the Chiefs specialise. For anyone reared on Bath’s high-octane attacking rugby in the 1980s it was deeply dispiriting.
It made for a stop-start first half, dominated territorially by the hosts whose interval lead was fully deserved. While Bath scored the game’s opening try through Joe Cokanasiga, courtesy of a neat tap-down by a leaping Orlando Bailey out wide, the Chiefs’ forwards were in purposeful mood and there was no stopping the recently prolific Ewers from close range after 16 minutes.
It was a credit to Bath’s well-organised defence, however, that it took a charged-down box kick on the Bath line eight minutes before half-time to put Exeter in the box seat. Slade was the grateful scorer but otherwise it was largely a game of fierce endeavour with precious few clean breaks.
The orgy of sluggish ball and aerial ping pong continued, with Bath replacing the boot-happy Louis Schreuder with another expert kicker in Ben Spencer. When a downcast Cameron Redpath went off injured after 54 minutes there were those in the press box wondering if he might be suffering from chronic boredom.
Then again, winning games of modern professional rugby is rarely about beauty or grace. Bath’s modus operandi may not stretch the boundaries of creativity unduly but they have spent long enough in the league’s basement this season to know the value of a gritty away win against the odds. In the end Annett’s try was not enough but his side are now appreciably harder to beat than they were three months ago.